Warwick Thornton in ‘We Don’t Need A Map’. 

Director Warwick Thornton decided to make his latest documentary We Don’t Need A Map following backlash he received when he compared the Southern Cross to a swastika.

Then nominated for Australian of the Year, Thornton said in 2010: “Aboriginal people have used the Southern Cross for the last 40,000 years as a beacon guiding them to travel through country for survival, and I’m starting to see that star system symbol being used as a very racist nationalistic emblem – and that is seriously worrying me.

“We don’t want to turn the Southern Cross into a swastika – that’s bloody important.”

Thornton told IF that the reaction to those comments in the media afterwards frightened him.

“I got scared. Then it took a year or two, and then I got angry… I’m not good at turning being afraid into energy, but I’m very good at turning anger into an energy,” he said.

“You’re going to throw rocks at me, I’m going to start throwing hand grenades at you. That’s where I thought: right, I am going to make a film about this and I’m going to stand up and be counted in it.”

The result is We Don’t Need a Map, set to open the Sydney Film Festival tomorrow evening. The film, which explores the history of the Southern Cross through colonial and indigenous history through to the present day, will also compete in the festival’s Official Competition.

Thornton said the doco, which he wrote with producer Brendan Fletcher, is less about provoking conversation than it is about spreading knowledge “that there is more out there.”

“There’s more to these stars than fear and hate and borders. How many people have thought, there actually has been people here for the last 50,000 years, I wonder if they’ve got an opinion on what they mean?”

In terms of choosing who to speak to for the film, Thornton said he had one rule: “no racists”.

Among the interviewee subjects are Aboriginal elders from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land, Wardaman country near Katherine, Warlpiri country in the Central Desert and from Wathaurong in Central Victoria. In addition, Thornton also talks to a range of musicians, as well as academics, tattoo artists and advertising execs.

We Don’t Need a Map was commissioned by NITV and Screen Australia as part of their Moment In History initiative, launched in the lead up to the proposed referendum on Constitutional Recognition.

Two other films from the initiative will also screen at Sydney Film Festival, including In My Own Words, from Thornton’s sister, Erica Glynn, and Tyson Mowarin’s Connection to Country.

Thornton described NITV as an exciting channel. “I find a lot of television at the moment like the absolutely sweetest mayonnaise and the most processed cheese. But you flick over to NITV and there’s some amazing, dynamic cinema happening from all around the world. They’re being very brave when everyone else is being very safe.”

The director said We Don’t Need A Map had a long shoot, as he went back to each location and to each subject twice, with editor Andrea Lang piecing the story together as they went.

On hand to help with the filming was long-time camera collaborator Drew English, as well as Thornton’s son Dylan River – who also has a short of his own in SFF, Finding Maawirrangga.

On River, whom Thornton also worked on his upcoming feature Sweet Country, the director said: “He saves my arse.”

“He did B camera on Sweet Country. When the shit was hitting the fan, we were so far behind, Dylan became second unit DP and second unit director. I’d just hand over a whole lot of scenes to him,” said Thornton.

“The same with We Don’t Need a Map as well… It was a bit of family affair, the cinematography. As well as driving, cooking, bailing me out of jail, all those kinds of things – that’s what you need a son on the shoot for (laughs).”

Thornton describes Sweet Country, an outback-set 1920s Western starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Ewen Leslie as a “big movie”. It follows the story of a young boy who witnesses an Aboriginal stockman kill a white station owner in self-defence.

The screenplay is based on a true story written by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, and is produced by David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin. Now in post, the film is slated for release some time next year.

“It’s an amazing script,” said Thornton. “It just grabbed me and empowered me.”

“It’s the first time I’d directed something I hadn’t written, which was really interesting. You’re so – and it must happen to all directors – you’re so fearful of even changing where the comma is in the script. And then you realise you can do whatever you fucking want (laughs).”

As for We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton credits the SFF organisers for making a statement by opening the festival with the film, but admits he is nervous.

“You can’t get a better platform than that. Could you whinge if you won lotto? It’s kind of one of those moments,” he laughed.

“For me it’s a really personal film.”

We Don’t Need a Map screens at the Sydney Film Festival June 7, 11 and 13. Thornton is a guest of Sydney Film Festival and Vivid Ideas.

After the June 11 screening, Thornton will also appear in conversation with film journalist Sandy George.

We Don’t Need a Map will also be broadcast nationally via NITV and SBS 8:30pm July 23.

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