At once benignly mischievous and profoundly serious, “We Don’t Need a Map,” the new documentary by “Samson & Delilah” director Warwick Thornton, explores the Southern Cross constellation, culturally integral to Australia’s indigenous peoples and inevitably massaged and reinterpreted by the white Europeans who later settled the continent. As such it is a pertinent message for the director’s countrymen and an eye-opening lesson for the world about the proud history and ongoing racial tensions that currently form the crux of the Australian experience.
Seven years ago, in the spotlight of success following his Cannes’ Camera d’Or win for “Sampson,” the always articulate and outspoken Thornton told a press conference he was concerned the five-pointed constellation had become his country’s “new Swastika.” This was a reference to a rise in nationalism that has seen many young white Australians ink the cluster on their bodies (what the tattoo artists call the “Aussie Swazi”).
“We Don’t Need a Map” is Thornton’s informative and somewhat eccentric effort to contextualize his remark. Over a brisk 85 minutes, he talks to some two dozen Australians from all walks of life; a series of tribal elders reveal the cosmology and “sacred power” of the Southern Cross, while academics, an ad executive, a rapper and even a punk musician weigh in on the rise of extremist nationalism since the notorious 2005 Cronulla riots that saw white youths square off against Lebanese community residents in the beachside suburb.
The director breaks up the flow of talking heads with breathtaking shots of the sped-up night sky (son Dylan River is one of three principal cameramen), as well as brief interludes with small, handcrafted figurines known as Bush Toys that stand in for the first wave of British settlers and their subsequent disruption and marginalization of the Aboriginals.
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The film manages to achieve that unique tone of Australian self-deprecation tempered by frustration but resolutely remaining positive about the future. Under the watchful gaze of the Southern Cross, someone says, it’s “a great comfort having that big fella up there.”
Thornton proves an affable host and interviewer, often seen in his trademark black baseball cap behind the camera as he films others.
Along with “Connection to Country,” also screening at the Sydney Film Festival, “We Don’t Need a Map” reps the first fruits of A Moment in History, a non-fiction initiative between and the Alice Springs-based TV channel National Indigenous Television. The goal of the slate is to explore the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the run-up to this year’s proposed Referendum on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. The film is set to air nationally July 23.