Is the Southern Cross warping into Australia’s most racist symbol? Is it in danger of becoming our swastika?
That’s what filmmaker Warwick Thornton suggested in a rather off-hand comment in a 2010 interview, referring to the use of the constellation as a symbol by nationalist groups in the years since the infamous 2005 Cronulla riots.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thornton found himself under attack by many who thought his views were unAustralian, and he decided not to speak publicly on the subject again.
That was until a couple of years ago, when Thornton got angry and decided that the use of the Southern Cross required a closer investigation.
The constellation has played a significant part in Indigenous cultures all around Australia for tens of thousands of years, and Thornton, as an Aboriginal man from Alice Springs, wanted to examine that culture alongside the Southern Cross’s contemporary cultural meanings. That includes, perhaps most significantly, its use as a tattoo.
The resulting film — a sprawling, punk-inspired documentary about Australia called We Don’t Need a Map — opened the Sydney Film Festival this week, and will be broadcast on NITV later this year.
Although it features some extraordinary images of remote areas around Australia (Thornton has been an in-demand cinematographer for two decades, so knows his way around a camera), the film feels, in some ways, like an odd choice as the Opening Night film at this year’s festival. It was commissioned as part of NITV’s Moment in History documentary initiative, and is, stylistically, very much a TV project.
But in terms of films which tap into the national psyche — and the deeper, evolving attitudes which form the core of our national identity — it’s difficult to imagine a better choice.
The film shoots out of the gates with extraordinary anger, buoyed by a thrashing rock soundtrack, quick-edits, and Thornton’s straight-shooting narration. Lo-fi, darkly funny historical recreations are interspersed with interviews, performed with the help of “bush toy” puppets from the Ltyentye Apurte and Titjikala communities of central Australia.
There’s also plenty of footage of Thornton behind the camera, shooting interviews and speaking to his subjects. The film is its own behind-the-scenes documentary, and it’s the most unguarded moments that are often its most charming.
But the initial burst of passion and anger that starts the film soon gives way to something more thoughtful and meditative as Thornton’s exploration broadens out.
He takes in scientific perspectives of the Southern Cross, as well as white historical perspectives (from its use as a symbol during the Eureka Stockade right up to its sky-rocketing popularity during the Cronulla riots), through to the Cross’s role in the lore of several different Indigenous tribes.
There are some rather provocative views about Australia’s identity and symbolism presented. Thornton speaks to academic Roz Ward, who was suspended from La Trobe University last year for saying the Australian flag was racist, as well as Ken West, who was subjected to violent threats after trying to discourage audience members at the Big Day Out from bringing Australian flags to the event.
But Thornton tries to present those perspectives without the heat and fury that tends to surround them. And there really should be no reason why these perspectives are so unacceptable — it should not be controversial to suggest that all non-Indigenous Australians are, to some degree, the beneficiaries of theft. That’s a mere fact of our history.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Thornton’s film is how it presents the fast-burning social and political debates that dominate contemporary media alongside the histories and practices of cultures that have existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years.
It’s a film that tries to put much of Australia’s conflicted identity into perspective and, for the most part, it succeeds brilliantly.
We Don’t Need a Map will be broadcast on NITV/ SBS July 23, 8.30pm