In 2010, Warwick Thornton made a controversial statement – he warned the Southern Cross could soon become Australia’s very own version of the Nazi swastika.
The backlash was swift and intense and it left Thornton, an award-winning Indigenous director, cinematographer and screenwriter from Alice Springs, feeling scared and increasingly angry.
“What I said wasn’t an attack but the comments back were attacks,” Thornton tells The New Daily.
“As a nation, we are pretty perfect and caring, but when it comes to looking at the crack in our foundations people get really upset.”
Thornton likened the backlash he received to handing “a bowler a hand grenade”, spurring him on to do a deep dive into the history of the problematic national emblem and its changing meaning for Aussies.
Prior to making his NITV documentary We Don’t Need a Map (which airs this Sunday, July 23), Thornton admits he, like many Australians, had racist tendencies.
“Anybody that I saw with a Southern Cross tattoo, I judged their cover, I didn’t read their book. I realised I was being racist in a way.”
For Indigenous people, the constellation has always been a totem that appears in a variety of different forms, but its meaning has been co-opted by White Australians since the 1854 Eureka Stockade.
Southern Cross tattoos reached peak popularity following the 2005 Cronulla riots, a series of violent clashes between Sydney’s Lebanese and white populations.
Thornton jokingly calls Cronulla “the next Gallipoli … [it’s] the only beach we’ve won”.
But speaking to both the tattooed and the tattooists, Thornton discovered a growing movement away from the patriotic ink.
“I remember doing Indigenous Studies at uni and our teacher showed us the emu and [I heard] the stories about what happened to indigenous people in this country and the genocide that occurred – a light globe went off in my head,” says Phil, who is shown in the documentary getting his tattoo removed.
“There’s this symbol on my back that doesn’t represent me and has just been hijacked.”
Tattoo removalist Sally tells Thornton she’s removing a large number of Southern Crosses each week, including her own.
“When they had their tattoo done it was a bit patriotic, it had sentimental value, but it’s changed and they’re embarrassed by it,” she explains.
Rapper Briggs tells Thornton he thinks this tendency to seize emblems comes from a lack of national culture and Thornton agrees – to an extent.
“I reckon we do have a culture we just don’t know what it is yet,” he contends.
“We just have to find it and celebrate it. We don’t even have a national dish!”
Even our flag, he says, isn’t really our own.
“The Southern Cross is on 20 flags around the world,” he says.
“We keep going to wars over this flag that’s not really representing us properly, it represents the past but not the future.”
Thornton admits his documentary is one-sided.
“This film isn’t balanced. This is what I want to tell. There are a lot of other wonderful platforms for racists,” he laughs.
However, he avoids finger-pointing and criticisms of past mistakes and instead suggests we all take on the burden of blame.
“With the Cronulla riots, we pushed it over to the bogans on the beach and said, ‘it happened there because they’re all d***heads’,” Thornton says.
“Bulls**t! It happened in Australia, so let’s call them the Australia riots.”
We Don’t Need a Map airs Sunday 23 July at 8.30pm on NITV and SBS