Warwick Thornton didn’t need to open with The Saints astonishing debut single, '(I’m) Stranded', to invite comparisons between his no-nonsense filmmaking style and the directness of punk rock. The Sampson and Delilah director’s new documentary, We Don’t Need a Map, is drenched in punk sweat: politically charged, but also playful, raw and human.
The film explores the cultural and political significance of the symbol of the Southern Cross, and unpacks a national identity that became bound to it. Rejecting a simplified story of the ownership of the Southern Cross by right wing nationalists, WDNAM is told through interviews with artists, tattooists, astronomers, Aboriginal Elders, and various Australian punk musicians. You wouldn't be alone thinking the last category seems out of place, but this is a film firmly embedded in the ethos of punk: it’s a bold political statement drenched in the playful sweat of DIY culture, with a blistering soundtrack to match.
But back to The Saints, because the soundtrack is laden with anthems from Australian punk rock: an extremely fertile music scene which is proving itself an emerging force in shaping our national identity. While The Saints might have kicked the door in on the music industry in this country (being reluctantly signed by EMI Australia under instruction from head office in London) it was the flood of bands that followed them that heralded a change in how things were done. The 1980s saw punk ethos churning through a wider circle of scenes - refracting through bandrooms and fanzines around the world changing how it looked and sounded along the way.
Can a three minute punk anthem about feeling disaffected really make lasting change? Probably not, but punk’s legacy and continued relevance lies in the how, rather than the what. The notion that “anyone could do it, without much musical ability to it" is a revolutionary tenet of the genre. The various boundaries to participation: financial, circumstantial, are lowered, and in theory, more voices get to tell their story.
That's one of the pillars of the punk energy of this film. It plays without pretense, and it's low fuss in construction, with Warwick (who is also an acclaimed cinematographer) often holding the camera while he interviews his subjects. This DIY style allows the filmmakers to get closer to the interviewees, and the film is characterised by Warwick's deep empathy for his subjects and the stories they have to tell.
The film also draws on music from figures who've been critical of Australia's relationship with its history and symbols in the past.
The Drones (whose frontperson, Gareth Liddiard, is also interviewed in the film) make mutant blues that feel like a natural continuation of Australian post-punk – mining the heat-induced delirium of The Triffids and uncompromising pub rock of X. Where they carved out their own space was in unnerving tales of colonial violence – dredging up images of Australia that didn’t appear on postcards. Take, for example, the lyrics from 2005's Locust:
They made the blacks live outside of town
The weekend come they’d tear the whole place down
The Chinese came without weekends at all
The whites complained the pay was better shooting them in the war
Gareth Liddiard’s ability to spin engrossing tales over savage rock‘n’roll dragged these stories into view for a wider audience. Their cover of Kev Carmody’s 'River of Tears' is a searing take on the 1989 death of David Gundy at the hands of NSW police:
Terrorists dressed in uniform
Under the protection of their law
Terrorise blacks in dawns of fear
They come smashin’ through your door
Likewise, The Peep Tempel’s Wake in Fright-esque masterpiece, 'Joy', flips the lid on a strain of the national psyche most would prefer to ignore. Violent mining communities, crooked cops, colonial theft and a selfish middle class are foregrounded in Blake Scott’s assessment of the country. Rather than being defeated by such a world, The Peep Tempel channelled their anger into the scorching lead single, 'Rayguns', that gleefully baits far-right nationalists and skewers tabloid panic.
Tellingly, the bands most able to disrupt national discourse are also keenly working to foster and promote the work of others at the same time. Shepparton rapper Briggs’ magnetic presence and insight is a highlight of WDNAM. Effortlessly taking the piss out of white Australian identity, his laconic discussion with Warwick contrasts with the menace and fire he and Trials deliver as A.B. Original. Their unapologetic and ripping record, 'Reclaim Australia', cut through decades of political posturing on Indigenous issues and centred the experiences of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Their single January 26, featuring Dan Sultan, played a massive role in moving Triple J's treasured day of airwave dominance, the Hottest 100.
While punk is a long way from delivering the revolution it promised (and has proven itself just as susceptible to right wing co-opting as the Southern Cross) it offers hope for different conversations about who we are. An art movement that is able to celebrate the eccentricities and experiences of the individual without promoting competitive individualism has remarkable potential to change the way we understand and relate to each other. With WDNAM, Warwick Thornton has both expanded the mosaic of Australian stories and further eroded the cultural hegemony of nationalism in this country. This is ultimately a film about resistance and celebrates the cultures and people that have withstood over two centuries of British invasion and genocide.
Nick Brown plays in Melbourne band Cable Ties, and as a former host of PBS FM's The Breakfast Spread he is currently enjoying staying up late.