Warwick Thornton spent eight weeks living on the remote Dampier Peninsula to escape the stresses of modern life.
Warwick Thornton spent eight weeks living on the remote Dampier Peninsula to escape the stresses of modern life. Supplied

Foraging for meaning in isolation

Long before the nation was in lockdown, Warwick Thornton underwent his own voluntary version of self-isolation.

The award-winning filmmaker felt it was time to get out of the fast lane after years of high-pressure work and an excessive lifestyle.

A new six-part documentary series, filmed by his son River, documents Thornton's eight-week journey of transformation and healing by reconnecting with country on the remote Dampier Peninsula.

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"It's suddenly become fortuitous in a way because the country is in this state of pause in lockdown," Thornton says.

"This seems like a romantic, once-upon-a-time isolation kind of thing. We all wish we were on a beach in the tropics right now collecting mud crabs, rather than looking out the window of a high-rise.

"Whether you've got access to a beach or not, I think there's something in there that can help mind, body and soul."

Warwick Thornton in a scene from the TV series The Beach.
Warwick Thornton in a scene from the TV series The Beach. Supplied

The Alice Springs native scouted locations for The Beach while he was working on season two of the ABC drama Mystery Road in Broome.

He settled on a beachside shack in Jilirr in the stunning and remote Bardi Jawi indigenous Protected Area.

"The first thought was could I actually do this show 200km out of Alice Springs? That would have been incredibly hard. I probably would have died in the first five days after eating lizards and witchetty grubs and berries that were highly toxic," he says.

"We have this incredible coast, which is the best supermarket in the world. If we protect it and look after it, then it will look after us. There was a firm decision to go to the coast because that's where I can actually collect and forage and sustain a lot better than in the desert."

Armed only with the essentials, the 49-year-old hunted and foraged for his food. There were days where he had no luck with his spear or his net and he'd eat only rice.

Food, from hunting, gathering and growing it to cooking and eating, is a major feature in The Beach.
Food, from hunting, gathering and growing it to cooking and eating, is a major feature in The Beach. Supplied

"It's incredible how beautiful bowl of rice with some ginger and shallots tastes when you're unbelievably hungry - that's when you start tasting food again. The most simple piece of food or protein, it's like you're tasting it for the first time," he says.

"One day there will be five mud crabs but you only take one because you only need one. Then the next two weeks you will not see a single mud crab.

"When you're trying to live off the land like that, it creates this amazing respect for the land itself. That's crocodile and jellyfish infested waters, and you have to be very careful about what you do. But it's really empowering too."

When he wasn't looking for or cooking food, Thornton had three chickens and a nylon string guitar for company. In candid moments, he shares intimate and confronting stories from his life.

"I was using those three chickens as a shrink in a way," he says.

Thornton's pet chooks became his therapists.
Thornton's pet chooks became his therapists. Supplied

"The funny thing with chickens is they do a lot of listening and not a lot of talking back. I was not using the stories of my life as some form of being a victim, you know, I grew up in such a poor place and all that hullabaloo. All those stories I tell, which are bloody personal, are empowering. You recognise who you are and your journey and forge the path you want to take."

The Beach was filmed by Thornton's son River, 22, whose talents behind the camera as a cinematographer are on full display.

"I didn't know how much I was going to freak out so to have my son there, the person who knows me the best, was the most important thing," he says.

"He's someone who can ground me. If my son says 'Dad snap out of it' I listen."

Thornton says it was a confronting but cathartic experience which he plans to repeat.

The Beach was filmed by Thornton's son River.
The Beach was filmed by Thornton's son River. Supplied

"It's the first time I've really stood in front of the camera and it was incredibly confronting," he says.

"But I walked away ready for another couple of years of making movies around the world. I felt incredibly focused and clear-eyed. It did everything I intended it to do.

"We all need to check ourselves physically and mentally.

"Being locked down here in Sydney, I noticed I'm starting to drink more from boredom and the fear of not knowing the future. But doing something like that (The Beach), I've understood how to heal myself.

"Hopefully (viewers) will get something out of watching this to help them roll through the next couple of months."

The Beach premieres on SBS, NITV and SBS On Demand Friday at 7.30pm.



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