Interview with Warwick Thornton: We Don't Need a Map
DISCLAIMER: This interview contains strong language and is not suitable for work
In 2009, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and he was later nominated for Australian of the Year. When asked at a press conference what his main concern would be if he received Australia’s highest honour, he replied, “that the Southern Cross is becoming the new Swastika.”
Seven years later, in We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton takes us on a journey through this five-star constellation’s astronomical, colonial and Indigenous history to the present day.
Produced by Brendan Fletcher (Mad Bastards) and shot by Thornton and his filmmaker son, Dylan River, this poetic essay-film features interviews with tattooists, rappers, astronomers…plus bush puppets. We Don’t Need A Map doesn’t shy away from the tough questions about the place of the Southern Cross in the Australian psyche, but Thornton’s cavalier spirit and inventive filmmaking skilfully balance the provocative and the pleasurable.
We caught up with Warwick and asked him to tell us more about the film and his Sydney Film Festival experience.
Your controversial comments about the Southern Cross were back in 2010. Now seven years later, what can you tell us about the years in between, and how this film came about?
I got into a lot of trouble and I got really afraid, because people had access to just abuse the fuck out of me on social media. So I got quite scared, and sort of slowly over the last couple of years that fear turned into anger, and anger is an energy, and you know, I’m quite good at making movies and telling stories and I said ‘Fuck it! I’m going to do a one-sided version of what I think this is all about.’
And here we are with the film opening the 64th Sydney Film Festival…
Yeah! Be careful, what you make because you just might open the Sydney Film Festival!
So exciting. You can’t get a better platform than that. How empowering to choose this film, you know what I mean? It’s a feel-good film, but it’s not your normal kind. It asks a lot of questions and it’s got a lot of attitude. A bit of bullshit and a bit of hysteria - a lot of hysteria - and a whole lot of truth, so it’s very exciting that they’ve chosen it.
It’s funny, you’re all empowered when you make it and then you go ‘Oh fuck, people are going to watch it. They’re going to grab me again and call me everything under the sun, like they did last time, when I made a simple comment.’
I’m not making a simple comment now – this is a thesis. So go hard or go home - I’m getting old, and you know, I’m sick of listening to other people’s bullshit. They can listen to my bullshit.
Watching the film, we hear many different opinions from many different people. As a filmmaker, how did you go about selecting people to be involved in the film?
The best storytellers always rise to the top. People who can articulate, people that’ve got emotion – that’s just general. You feel it, you know, you walk away from the interview going ‘Fuck, that’s awesome – I really feel that.’
We had an amazing researcher called Fari Braithwaite who went through all those platforms, looking at who‘s been in trouble, and then found leads and links and talked to universities about people who specialise in culture and nationalism or racism.
And the film’s very one-sided. I refuse to give one frame to a racist in this film. They have their own platforms, and they have awesome access to television, print, and you know, a lot of them are on television, print payrolls, and they’re just blatantly racist human beings.
So I refused to have any racist people in this film. One side are the people that I love, the people who think like me and the people who want to be in this film, and let’s do it for us this time, so there’s no balance in the film – it’s just my version.
Tell us about the decision to put yourself in the film.
I’ve been really struggling with this, because I do not like films like that. I literally switched off Searching for Sugar Man, because they were talking about themselves, the filmmakers, and how no one else has ever heard of Rodriguez before and how they’re going to go and find him and give him to the world. It’s like, fuck off everyone – you know what I mean? But they self-empowered themselves, so I walked out, you know. I grew up with Rodriguez.
And then I make a film that kind of opens similarly. And it’s like oh, you idiot. And everyone around me says ‘No, it’s good, you should do this.’ And it’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I still feel like a wanker.’
But We Don’t Need a Map is one of those films where actually something happened to me, and I do have a personal experience in this, and you know what? There’s that great line from Big Day Out’s Ken West, where he goes ‘Well, you can’t be un-Australian, can you? You’re fucking Aboriginal.’ So if anyone can make a film about nationalism and racism and Australia being a bunch of dickheads, well, it should be an Aboriginal person. They can’t say I’m not Australian, can they?
So that’s the angel on this shoulder going ‘Yes! This film could not be made without you being in it Warwick!’ And there’s the devil on the other side going ‘You wanker! You’re a complete dickhead! You made the kind of film you actually don’t like!’
Can you tell us more about how it was working with your son Dylan River on this film?
He’s pretty awesome! Dylan’s an amazing cinematographer and he’s one of those amazing people that – you just send him away and he’ll bring back magic.
On We Don’t Need A Map I needed backup from Dylan and Drew, because there will be points where I want to be in the film, and sometimes it works, but the camera moves – sometimes I’m not there with the camera and it’s just finding that balance of having backup from Dylan.
I just finished directing a film called Sweet Country and Dylan does the second unit directing DOP as well as B camera .You send him away with a grip and a gaffer and two of the cast on the film, over the sand dunes up near the rocks there, and I’ll say ‘Can you get these done because we’re so fucking far behind on the film?’ And he comes back and it’s all done and it’s better than I thought.
Dylan’s just got a great brain - and it’s nothing to do with me; his mother’s taught him well. He’s just very special and amazing.
In the film we glimpse men making toys from scrap metal, and these toys are used throughout the film as puppets to act out history lessons about the colonisation of Australia. What came first, the concept of the puppet show, or finding the puppets themselves?
For 20 years I’ve wanted to do something with the bush toys mob. Amazing exhibitions that they’ve had – you know, about past life, traditional life, all these wonderful little things they make from the derelict junk – the most perfect, beautiful piece of sustainable recycling, in a way – turning shit, into art and doing it perfectly. I always wanted to do something with them, and I had this film where we wondered ‘where’s the next step’?
I could just go and make a normal documentary. And it could work for me personally, but it’d be boring as fucking batshit. So what do we have to do to push this film a little bit further? What’s going to make it a) unique but b) actually help deliver the story in the best way? And I was going ‘I’ve always wanted to do something on the bush toys’ and there’s all this history, and I’m thinking ‘We could just reanimate all the bush toys’ We had this little picnic – I already had the money to make the movie, but you’ve just got to keep pushing yourself. Make something more unique, and find a story and ways of telling the story that are not normal.
Another powerful moment in the film is when you take off the microphone and you approach the stone wall for a few minutes in silence. What was going through your head when you were shooting at that moment?
Just anger. That’s a heritage wall – a fucking heritage wall, and it’s been paid for by the state or federal government, and half of those rocks were aligned as sacred. It’s such a disgrace. And then right next to it is this heritage wall is a plaque and oh, you know, ‘making Australia great ‘and ‘our birth of a nation’. This fucking wall that actually is probably all the rocks from all these amazing Stonehenge kind of things that Indigenous people from around that area had created, that would have been tens of thousands of years old that were all turned into this heritage fucking wall. It made me feel ill. That’s when I wanted to kick the wall. So I did. Hopefully I didn’t break it, because I’d probably be in gaol!
What was it like to be selected as one of the four films screening as part of the National Indigenous Television (NITV) and Screen Australia’s Moment in History landmark Indigenous documentary series later this year?
Oh, it’s very exciting. The NITV is so empowering at the moment. It’s the only place you’re hearing a foreign language and the fucking irony is that it’s the original language of this country. They’re not foreign, but they sound foreign, you know what I mean?
It’s probably the only place now you’re seeing subtitles because we’re all becoming homogenised. All television stations are all sort of the same strange world, but NITV’s so unique and empowered, and it’s one of the most important things of education for this country, to get NITV into every household so that people can witness part of their heritage – Australia’s heritage; the First People. To hear those beautiful languages in your house, it’s very special. Incredibly special.
NITV has been trying to formulate itself to be palatable to a mainstream audience, and the blacker they get, the stronger they’ll be. Because even a mainstream audience will recognise the absolute, unbelievable uniqueness, and that will be the calling card and the excitement about it, is the being blacker, and actually make stuff that is not that palatable, but you’re not trying to please everybody.
What would you say is your biggest learning from making the film and what do you want people to take when they look at the Southern Cross today?
I learnt so much by making the film – I learnt so much about who I am as a blackfella, how society thinks, how nationalism grows. I learnt a lot about who to blame, and it’s just us as Australians – we’re so lazy, such a lazy country. There’s all that information; but you don’t even know whose land you’re on. Who were the original – what was the language spoken? But it’s there – you know? It’s such a lazy country, comfortable, don’t talk about the past. Ah, but we will talk about the ANZACS, because that’s our only past. That’s not our only past – but that’s the only past we can talk about. Anyway - you give it to a country, and you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, you know what I mean?
So let’s hope everyone sees it. And they can make their own mind up if it’s shit or not.
And a last question – we noticed your spear fishing skills in the film. Are you a skilled spear fisher, or was that a lucky throw?
You know what? I honestly believe that I’m one of the greatest hunters in the world, and I can just take my clothes off and walk into the bush and live forever. It was a lucky shot. And that’s why it’s in the film.
No, I actually got that. And truly, if I walked out there and tried to do that to feed my family, I think we’d all starve.
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