Movie with poignant First Nations message opens Australia Day concert

Step back in time to see how Sydney Cove (‘Warrane’ to be historically correct) looked hundreds of years ago. We fly like Raymond Briggs’ Snowman past the Harbour Bridge, dip below the surface of the harbour then resurface moments later in 1788. Below is an Aboriginal man standing in a canoe, spear ready in his hand.

This is the powerful 11-minute movie that will preface tomorrow’s Australia Day concert as controversy continues to build over the commemoration of the January 26 date and amid calls for a representative body for Indigenous Australians to be embedded in the constitution.

Marines stand below the British flag at Sydney Cove as portrayed in the Virtual Warrane for the Australia Day concert.Credit:Bilbie Labs

Virtual Warrane is the work of Indigenous digital artist Brett Leavy, inspired by convict artist, Joseph Lycett, who captured not only the early settlement of Sydney but also scenes of Indigenous people engaging in food gathering, ceremony and hunting.

There’s plenty to contemplate with messages from actor Jack Thompson and chairperson of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council Yvonne Weldon.

“I feel honoured to have been invited to be a part of the Australia Day Warrane feature,” Thompson said. “It is an exciting and timely recognition of the First Australians whose land we live in and with whom we share a mutual future. In these uncertain times let us all embrace the responsibility we have for Caring for Country in this Great Southern Land we are so fortunate to live in.”

We continue our flight over Gadigal encampments, past the 11 ships of the First Fleet at anchor on the evening of January 26, 1788 and then we see the red-coated marines standing below a fluttering of the recently raised British flag.

The movie will be broadcast live at 7.30pm on the ABC. The film cuts to William Barton, Australia’s foremost exponent of the yidaki, or didgeridoo, playing the classic rock number Great Southern Land with Iva Davies as Indigenous meets Icehouse.

The First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 as envisaged for the Australia Day concert.Credit:Bilbie Labs

Barton said the song represents to him both hope and the mother earth. “There is music leading up to Great Southern Land which is my own work to symbolise the yearning of both cultures, of displacement and the journey of recognition and [the hope] that we can work together and open up a conversation for greater things,” he said.

The climax of the piece is the live performance of Great Southern Land on the Sydney Opera House stage performed (and written) by Iva Davies along with a choir and concert band. He said he had worked with Barton since 2009. “The song, almost 40 years on, remains as much as a mystery to me now as when people reacted to it straight away when it was just a demo tape on the second album,” Davies said.

Explaining how the song came about, he added: “I am actually quite a conservative songwriter, I have never overtly used songs as forums although quite a lot of my songs have little grenades buried in them. Even at that point I knew it was incredibly dangerous to try and write a song about your home country.

Icehouse frontman Iva Davies

“I had just been away on our first international tour and I got incredibly homesick. It was the first time I had flown across Australia and it was a kind of lightbulb moment of the sheer scale of Australia. I just wrote three word phrases on pieces of paper and kept generating those until there was a great pile on the floor and then strung the best together. It’s kind of a mystery to me that it is as coherent as it really is.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in her Australia Day message said the COVID-19 limitations didn’t detract from marking the importance of the day.

“Our national day also shines light on inclusion for all people, from the first Australians to new citizens. We can all draw on the strength of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who proudly represent the longest surviving culture on the planet,” she said.

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