Review – We Don’t Need a Map (2017)

Director: Warwick Thornton

Starring: Warwick Thornton


In 2010, riding high on the success of his debut feature Samson & Delilah, Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton found himself in hot water when he suggested that the Southern Cross was fast becoming Australia’s equivalent to the swastika. His new documentary, We Don’t Need a Map, which opened this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is his effort to explain those remarks by delving into the historical meaning of the Southern Cross. We Don’t Need a Map is one of four films funded by NITV (National Indigenous Television) as part of the ‘Moment in History’ initiative to mark fifty years since the 1967 referendum which saw Aboriginal people officially recognised as part of Australia’s population.

Since the infamous Cronulla riots of 2005, the Southern Cross – a constellation of five stars which appears on the Australian flag – has come to be associated, particularly in tattoo form, with a particular brand of white nationalism in Australia. We Don’t Need a Map explores its history as an icon, and the way that since it first appeared on a flag in the Eureka Stockade of the 1850s it has been used simultaneously as a symbol of unity and division. However, Thornton wants to take us further back, prompted by an astronomer who explains that, due to its distance from Earth, the light we see from the Southern Cross is actually 250-350 years old, a period of time that predates colonial Australia. Moving through the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia he talks to indigenous elders, hears traditional stories and explores the cultural significance of the Southern Cross to Australia’s first peoples.

Thornton takes a prominent on-screen role. By using the controversy of his swastika comments as his departure point he makes himself central to the film’s exploration of the issue. What follows is very much his unapologetically subjective investigation, and he doesn’t pull his punches. From its focus on nationalism the discussion naturally progresses to hot-button topics including refugees and immigration, Gallipoli and the ANZAC myth, and white Australia’s lack of a culture of its own.

We Don't Need a Map Puppet

Warwick Thornton conversing with Captain Cook

While the film deals with some very serious issues, and is seeking to make a serious point, it maintains a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun. Thornton employs a punk-infused homemade aesthetic which gives the film a great sense of energy. We Don’t Need a Map is a visual mixture. Much of the information is delivered through traditional talking head interviews with a variety of subjects including astronomers, rappers, academics, indigenous elders and advertising executives, but these talking heads are supplemented with some rudimentary marionette puppetry which Thornton uses to re-enact the basic story of Australian colonialism, and some absolutely stunning night sky photography.

At one point, rapper Adam Briggs makes passing reference to the fact that the Southern Cross also appears on the Brazilian flag. In fact the Southern Cross also appears on the national flags of New Zealand, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. Thornton’s focus is obviously on the Southern Cross as an Australian symbol, but while it would have gone beyond the scope of his argument – that the Southern Cross does not belong to white nationalist youths, it has been co-opted – it would have been interesting to see acknowledgement of the fact that the Southern Cross, visible in the night sky all over the southern hemisphere, does not belong to Australia period.

We Don’t Need a Map is an unapolagetic, confronting and stimulating piece. Passionate and vibrant, Thornton’s aim is above all to share knowledge, and for that reason it is well worth watching.

Rating: ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen We Don’t Need a Map? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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