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In 2009, the year his Samson and Delilah won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton was nominated Australian of the Year. When asked at a press conference what his main concern would be if he received Australia’s highest honour, he replied, “that the Southern Cross is becoming the new swastika.” All hell broke loose. Thornton fills out his comments in this genial and wide-ranging film essay, contrasting Aboriginal legends of the heavens with the nationalist fervour that’s fastened in recent years upon the five-star constellation.
Thornton and his filmmaker son Dylan River turn their cameras to the heavens, flooding the screen with the whole night sky as astronomers and elders from North East Arnhem Land, Katherine and the Central Desert tell their stories of the stars. On desert sands, bush puppets act out a cartoon history in which the Southern Cross has constantly figured as an emblem of the coloniser. Tattooists, musicians and a range of lively commentators observe the enduring connotations – and the dangers lurking for those who resist, such as the organisers of the Big Day Out who asked music fans to leave their flags at home.