Filmmaker Warwick Thornton discussed a variety of topics surrounding the current standing of Aboriginal Australian cinema and the importance of being able to share that voice while promoting his latest film at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The award-winning director attended the event’s most recent edition to discuss his film ‘The New Boy’, which was part of the Festival’s schedule.

Thornton’s 2023 picture tells the story of a young nine-year-old Aboriginal Australian orphan boy who is dropped off at a Christian monastery, run by a renegade nun (played by Cate Blanchett), and slowly begins to question his faith and loyalty to his heritage.

The film delves deep into the symbolism of British colonisation in assimilating Aboriginal Australians into their way of life, with a particular focus on the effect of the Christian faith in this.

The Aboriginal Australian Director spoke with on both his experiences developing the film and the current standing of Aboriginal Australian cinema as a whole.

Opening up on his position as one of the more notable Indigenous Australian filmmakers, he spoke on the significance of having films of Aboriginal Australians made by representatives of that community.

He further highlighted his sincere joy in being fortunate enough to learn how to make and earn financing to create movies, saying “I consider it important to try to give a voice to the voiceless, which are my people”.

He added that his people have an oral history, not written, and so film is a medium in which they can communicate their history and heritage in a more permanent and accessible manner.

“Indigenous peoples around the world have amazing stories that have not been heard,” he said.

Thornton explained that he feels there is a market out there for Indigenous stories all across the world, with independent filmmaking allowing for a plethora of different voices and angles to be presented that live side by side with the big blockbusters of Hollywood.

“Escapism is escapism, but even that unique angle is incredibly tempting, I think, for viewers to finally see through the eyes of someone they can never be with or have never seen,” he said.

“Fortunately, we have created a community of Indigenous filmmakers in Australia…There is an audience there in Australia that, if they see it is an Indigenous film by an Indigenous director, they will go see it. It took 20 years of making movies to build that audience.”

Addressing the film specifically, Thornton stated that the film is inspired by his own experience of going to a boarding school run by Spanish Benedictine monks in the middle of nowhere as a 12-year-old, exposing him for the first time to Christianity.

He cited the historical context of Christian missions back during the time of the British’s arrival as being the one place where they would not be shot or fall under physical attack, though it came at the price of losing their identity.

“We all gathered there at the missions. It was like you were safe there, but actually you lost your language, you were not allowed to speak your language,” Thornton said.

Still from the film The New Boy ft Aswan Reid, in his debut role. Photo: YouTube

He directly compared this to his own experience at the monks’ boarding school, and that going as a young child makes it especially easier to lose one’s identity which is why he decided to create this film.

Speaking on Cate Blanchett’s involvement, Thornton revealed that initially he did not have a nun character at all but in discussing the film with her during COVID-19, he was inspired to create the character she would ultimately play.

Thornton stated that Blanchett’s character added an extra level of interest as she performs many actions that a priest would do, which are not allowed to be done by nuns.

“It gives her an extra existential angst. She breaks the law every day with what she does,” the director said while also praising her professionalism and talent as an actress.

Thornton concluded the interview by admitting his disappointment in how Aboriginal Australians are still not truly recognised (citing the results of the recent Referendum which had just recently occurred at the time of this interview).

He expressed his view that the arts are a good tool to educate people on Indigenous while still making it entertaining.

“You want people to feel like they are having fun without realising they are learning things…like they are going back to school, to university, and that they learn something. This is our hope.”