• Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton opened the 2017 Sydney Film Festival with his documentary 'We Don't Need A Map'. (YouTube)
Cinematography wasn't a natural gift for internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Warwick Thornton. But storytelling has always run in the Kaytej man's blood.
By
Laura Morelli

17 Jul 2017 - 5:28 PM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2017 - 12:11 PM

It’s not often you see an Aboriginal Australian film director steal the limelight of the world stage at the most prestigious international film festivals. However, donning his iconic ‘black Elvis jacket’ and trademark cap, Kaytej filmmaker, Warwick Thornton, has used his storytelling skills to bring Indigenous Australia to the big screen. 

His cinematic drama Samson & Delilah (2009) received the prestigious Caméra d'Or ('Golden Camera') for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as awards from the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Berlinale to his credit.

This year, Warwick's latest film, We Don’t Need a Map (a documentary covering the Southern Cross' history and cultural significance) opened the Sydney Film Festival. While it's very rare to screen a local production, a documentary or an Indigenous film on Sydney Film Festival opening night - Warwick's new creative exploration premiered and captivated the audience.

“We’re seeing that Australia is very much interested in Indigenous subjects and it is becoming more and more and we as Indigenous filmmakers get better at making movies. I think there’s a much bigger hunger out there for our films and festivals are recognising that which is exciting.”

 

Directing Conversations

Thornton's films provoke compelling conversations and heated debate about Indigenous affairs.

We Don’t Need a Map, for example, explores concern, and his own frustration, about the motif of Southern Cross was at risk of becoming "the new swastika", something the filmmaker said when he was a finalist for the Australian of the Year in 2010. A comment which understandably sparked heated debate, but a conversation Warwick says, 'Australia needs to have'.

“For me, the symbol – the idea of the Southern Cross was slightly turning into that sort of ‘us against them’. The first time I saw a Southern Cross tattoo it was quirky and beautiful, and then suddenly it was it began raising its head in right-wing ways and in a way that started to worry me.”

“People are searching for connection, but when you find something you think makes you different to other people, there’s a danger that it will turn into something nationalistic. To create that idea is to actually create a certain amount of fear in a way.”

Warwick believes it stems from a fear of losing identity and possessively trying to grab hold of something, which turns into something slightly dangerous.

“We’ve seen symbols like the swastika be appropriated and what happens is a very dark past where parts of history were created. I want to have that conversation now before it actually happens. It might not happen, but it’s something we need to talk about to ensure it doesn’t.”

 

Finding Film

Some would say Warwick was born into the media industry. His mother, Freda Glynn, was one of the co-founders of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and was also one of the first directors of Imparja Television, a network servicing remote Eastern and Central Australia. For a time she was the only female chair of a television network in the world.

His sister, Erica Glynn, is also an established, award-winning writer-director whose film In My Own Words, featured alongside his at the Sydney Film Festival and his brother, Scott Thornton an actor - However Warwick says he wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, he’s just lucky he wasn’t good at sports.

“In a strange way, I was very fortunate I couldn’t kick a football, I didn’t care for sports and all my mates did. They were waiting for the bloody draft, while I couldn’t even catch a ball,” he said.

“I knew I had to do something, so I picked up a camera instead.”

Born in Alice Springs in 1970, the Kaytej man’s hometown was Barrow Creek - halfway between Tenant Creek and Alice Springs. At the age of 14, he became a DJ on CAAMA, a place which opened up several doors in his career, including camera traineeships for him. But what drove his film journey, evidently was his passion to escape.

“I got into film to get out of Alice. I loved Alice - its cycles, its beer, blokes and barbeques, it’s got a wonderful culture, so many tribes there on Arrernte land. I just thought there’s got to be more.”

“I got into film to get out of Alice. I loved Alice - its cycles, its beer, blokes and barbeques, it’s got a wonderful culture, so many tribes there on Arrernte land. I just thought there’s got to be more.”

Cinematography wasn’t a natural gift for Warwick; he says it took a lot of hard work a lot of failures and a lot of time to craft storytelling and to become a great storyteller.

“At the beginning of making movies, you have a fear and want to be fantastic at it. You start emulating everyone else because there’s a populous – feature films, docos, commercials - whatever everyone likes at the moment you start doing,” Warwick explains.

“One of the hardest challenges is to break that and start doing things you actually feel emotional about. Creating new styles, forms and ways of storytelling. It’s the most challenging part of the job but once you succeed, you make unique, quality stuff that people want to see.

 

Storytelling through an Indigenous lens

Storytelling is a huge part of Aboriginal culture; oral history is how ancestors passed on their knowledge to the next generation. Although Warwick is not searching for his Aboriginal identity, he is instead searching for what makes him an 'Aboriginal filmmaker'. What he does know, is that storytelling runs through his blood.

“I’m going to be Aboriginal all my life, I can’t get rid of that one, but I don’t necessarily have to be a filmmaker all my life, nonetheless that’s what I’ve chosen to do, so I’m trying to figure out how to make those two work together and become something unique.”

Thinking back to being out bush around a campfire and listening to leaders teach through stories, Warwick says he’s practising what his ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.

“Traditionally we’d have people who were the big storytellers in the tribe. Their job was to keep specific stories alive and I like to think that’s what I’m translating now.”

Imagine gathering around a campfire with a tribe of 20 people, Warwick wonders how someone can tell a story and keep everyone enthralled, just by their voice and the timings of what they’re saying.

“Remove the cameras, superstars and visual effects. I’m asking: ‘how do you keep an audience incredibly enthralled just with a voice, face and campfire?’ he said.

“So that’s what I do today with filmmaking. It was done before thousands of years ago and it seemed to work, so I’m trying to translate that today."

We Don't Need A Map is a part of the #YouAreHere documentary series, premiering on Sunday, 23 July at 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34.

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