Film

The New Boy director Warwick Thornton: 'Democracy is a failure for world's indigenous people'

Award-winning film director Warwick Thornton on working with Cate Blanchett on The New Boy and why democracy doesn’t work for Indigenous people

Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in The New Boy

Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in The New Boy. Image: Ben King (Signature-Entertainment)

Warwick Thornton is an Australian film director, screenwriter and cinematographer of rare power and skill, whose latest film The New Boy stars Cate Blanchett alongside newcomer Aswan Reid in the story of a young Aboriginal boy’s arrival at a remote monastery run by a renegade nun.

Thornton came to prominence winning the Camera D’Or for his debut film Samson And Delilah at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. In 2017, his film Sweet Country became his second film to win Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Thornton’s latest film, The New Boy, began playing at film festivals around the time of the referendum in Australia which resulted in a vote of 60% against the proposal to “recognise the First People of Australia”. As the film comes to cinemas in the UK, we spoke to Thornton about making The New Boy, what happens when indigenous spirituality comes into contact with organised religion, releasing the film in a time political turmoil, and what it has to say about the world…

My new film The New Boy took a long time. But it took a while, because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. It was a good idea but it was a bad script. Well, actually, it was a bad idea too – because I was writing a film about a child and a priest, not realising that it would have all these connotations.

Then Cate Blanchett rang me. We’d met before at the London Film Festival but I’d forgotten. How embarrassing is that? But when Covid happened, and we were all stuck, Cate rang and said: ‘the world’s in trouble, life’s too short, let’s go make a movie’.

We did everything but talk about making a movie. We were sussing each other out. And I think I got away with it. We talked about books, she would talk about a 16th century artist, then I would talk about Adam & The Ants or Ultravox. But we got on like a house on fire. We found out we were compatible to make a movie. But what the hell to make?

Then I remembered a script I had written a long time ago. I had tried to raise that Titanic so many times but it always sunk. So I raised it one more time, said, I’ve got this script about a priest and a child. Maybe we’ll piss the priest off and make it a nun…

Cate read it and she said yes. But her call, which is brilliant because I was ready to rewrite it, was to keep the script almost the same. For the nun to do all the priest shit. All the things the nun is not allowed to do, that would cause a bolt of lightning to strike her down – the lying, the deception. She has to look after all these children but has to lie about there being a priest in charge. There is no priest. So now she has got convictions and fears. And that’s a film.

A load of my early interactions with Christianity are in The New Boy. I was a very free child, brought up with a version of ‘fairies are real’ – I will use of metaphors of the English. I was a wild child at 10 years old, staying out until two in the morning, running amok, being a general nuisance. Then suddenly, when I was 11, I was sent to a boarding school 1000 kilometres away from where my people are from run by Spanish Benedictine monks. I’d never been to a church. And then suddenly, I’m thrust into this system.

Warwick Thornton’s new film The New Boy stars Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid

I needed stability and structure. So boarding school was good for me, because the structure and the stability and the building of your inner respect. But if you walk into a church for the first time and there is this bloke up there on a cross, full size, in unbelievable pain – as an 11-year-old child, you go I’m really scared, there’s a man in this room being tortured.

So the first thing you think is, can we get him down and help him? Their version is that he died for our sins, so we have to watch him die for the rest of our lives. Coming from an indigenous spiritual background, my version was is if someone’s in trouble, you’ve got to help them. You don’t leave them up there. So all that made it into the film.

This film is NOT about Australia’s past. It’s England’s past. Let’s make that clear. England has a lot to do with this and they will always have a lot to do with it. And England’s really good at turning off about that – Australia has been colonised for 200 years. 

And this film has got nothing to do with the vote to recognise indigenous people in the constitution. The New Boy was written and filmed before the vote. Most of Australia said no, we won’t recognise Aboriginal people in the constitution. So we are still that word Terra Nullius in Australia, that was given to us by the English. We weren’t here and never were. Indigenous people call it just another day in the colony.

Democracy is a failure for indigenous people around the world. It’s a complete lie. It does not work because you’re a minority, and that kind of thing doesn’t work with democracy. The legal arguments don’t work in the democracy we were given by Westminster.

It’s a hard one for us to argue. We’re passionate people, we love our country. We won’t start building bombs, we will use the legal system, and it will probably take another 1000 years for us. But we’ll use your law to prove that we actually were here…

The New Boy is in cinemas from 15 March.

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