• 'Gayby Baby' filmmakers Maya Newell and Charlotte Mars. (Jez Smith)Source: Jez Smith
It's been six months since a small documentary about the children of same-sex parents made big news across the country. We spoke to the filmmakers in the lead-up to its Australian television premiere on SBS.
Drew Sheldrick

17 Feb 2016 - 9:41 AM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2016 - 9:41 AM

This week's palaver about children learning about the LGBTI experience in Australian schools is the latest salvo in a culture war that's become increasingly focused on making educational institutions a prominent battlefield. But long before the Safe Schools Coalition started making headlines, film producer Charlotte Mars and director Maya Newell were caught up in the increasingly ferocious debate with their documentary, Gayby Baby.

The film's portrait of four children with same-sex parents - Gus, Ebony, Matt and Graham - was banned from NSW public schools by state education minister Adrian Piccoli and NSW premier Mike Baird in August last year. It followed a front page splash from News Corp's Daily Telegraph, entitled "Gay class uproar", which claimed parents were outraged at a planned screening of the film at Burwood Girls High School in Sydney's Inner West. (Subsequent news reports challenged whether any parents did indeed complain.)

It was accompanied by an opinion editorial written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman, who claimed Newell and Mars were "political propagandists" and that same-sex couples with children were "not normal".

The pair said the first they knew of the newspaper's story was after it had already hit the streets.

"We had no idea," Mars said.

"We were not contacted for comment, we didn't even have an opportunity to forewarn the children [in the film]. We woke up as shocked as anyone."

Newell agreed that the children who starred in the film were the pair's immediate concern.

"The first thing for both of us was 'what are the kids thinking?'" Newell said

"The kids have got their images all over the newspaper, they're being attacked and these horrible things were being said. We were really worried about them."

When the education minister announced the film ban, Mars said she realised things had escalated from simply a "sensational" media campaign.

"You become a little bit concerned about the relationship between the media and politicians considering these politicians hadn't seen the film and were willing to make a significant public statement about these families and these kids," Mars said.

Both filmmakers were aware of the debate concerning same-sex families before they set out to produce the documentary, but said they made a conscious decision before starting production that it was a debate they didn't want to enter.

"We were tired of it. We felt like there was something more considered we could offer with this film and maybe these kids could be that voice," Mars said.

"It wasn't about yelling, it was just about telling the story of these young people, who are incredibly compelling. I think that there's something powerful in that."

The controversy affected not only those involved with the film, but also same-sex parents throughout Australia who felt the ban reflected on them. Melbourne father James McDonald, who has twins with his husband Iain, was one of those who felt particularly aggrieved.

"The anti-Gayby Baby press really got me down," he explained.

"I had to pretty much remove myself from the world - avoiding the press, social media and even friends who wanted to express their own outrage about how ridiculous the whole situation was - because it hurt too much.

"Like any parent on any given day of the week, I worry enough about making sure that I am a good dad to my kids and make the right decisions for them. I don't need a newspaper or any person telling me or my kids that our family is not normal and making me second guess everything. No parent needs that."

Newell herself comes from a same-sex parented family, which was one of her initial drivers in wanting to get Gayby Baby made.

"I think most people didn't really consider our existence," she said.

"While it's a really hard thing for us to measure, I definitely think the film's helped in terms of visibility and starting conversations."

The filmmakers hoped some of those conversations could take place in schools, which led to their involvement in the anti-LGBTI bullying Wear It Purple Day - the catalyst for the Burwood Girls screening.

"Since we made the film we've seen there's an opportunity to use it in a way that has a positive impact for kids and families," Newell said.

"We felt a place to start was in schools because it would be really lovely to show how diverse families are in Australia."

Delivering on a dream: A gay dad's surrogacy journey
James McDonald and his partner, Iain, used an American egg donor and an Indian surrogate to help them achieve their dream of becoming same-sex parents. James charts their surrogacy journey across three continents, facing rapidly-changing surrogacy laws, limited communication and mountains of paperwork.

Despite last year's controversy, Mars and Newell are now working on a new educational resource based around the film, which is planned for release mid-year. It'll be the latest incarnation for a documentary that has seen a cinematic release, a tour of the film festival circuit and its Australian television premiere later this month.

The film will also be the subject of a public art exhibition outside Sydney Town Hall from this week. A collaboration between the Head On Photo Festival and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, the photo series features portraits of children from LGBTI families, and will run until March 8.

"We started off wanting to make this film because both of us believe that film is one of the most powerful ways that you can reflect back a society's view of itself," Mars said.

"We can tell stories and learn about each other. That's a really powerful change agent."

Gayby Baby will screen on SBS2 on Monday, 7 March at 9.50pm. It's also available to watch on SBS On Demand here.