Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra
Celebrating Australia's acclaimed Indigenous dance theatre, this excellent documentary also steps through the nation's past and paints a portrait of three siblings with dreams as big as their talents.
December 10 isn't an Australian public holiday. The nation doesn't stop to remember or celebrate it, or to look back at our past. But, thanks to a speech that took place in 1992, that date will always remain significant in the country's history. Taking to the stage in Sydney's Redfern Park, then-Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a groundbreaking address about the country's treatment of Indigenous Australians. He spoke six months after the High Court's Mabo decision, and didn't pay mere lip service to the topic. Rather, he directly discussed the negative effects of white settlement upon First Nations peoples. Keating also did all of the above after quite the opening act — with Bangarra Dance Theatre, just three years into its now 32-year existence, performing before what's been known ever since as the Redfern Park Speech.
Even if your knowledge of Bangarra is limited to the many dance productions that have unleashed their beauty and potency across Australia's stages — which include Blak, Patyegarang, Lore, OUR land people stories, Bennelong and Dark Emu just in the last decade — the company's presence at Keating's famed address shouldn't come as even the slightest surprise. The Sydney-based organisation repeatedly confronts Australia's colonial history head-on in its works. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts outfit, it can't avoid it, the impact that the nation's past has had upon Indigenous culture, and the trauma that's rippled across generations as a result. Seeing footage from that fated day and speech has an impact, though. Such clips form just a small part of the excellent new documentary Firestarter — The Story of Bangarra, but co-directors Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding) and Nel Minchin (Matilda & Me, Making Muriel) know their power. Indeed, the two filmmakers are well aware that they can't tell Bangarra's tale without placing the acclaimed dance theatre in its rightful social, political and cultural context. What audiences have seen on stage over the years is stunning, astonishing and important, of course, but all of those exceptional performances haven't ever existed in a vacuum.
For those unacquainted with the details of Bangarra's origins, evolution, aims and achievements, Firestarter recounts them, starting with its leap out of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre. Actually, it jumps back further, not only stepping through Bangarra's predecessors, but also charting how Stephen, David and Russell Page became its most famous names. Just as it's impossible to examine the dance company's accomplishments and influence without also interrogating and chronicling Australia's history, it's simply unthinkable to do so without focusing as heavily on the Page brothers as Blair and Minchin choose to. Stephen would become Bangarra's artistic director, a role he still holds. David was its music director, while Russell was one of its best dancers — and their path from growing up in Brisbane in the 60s, 70s and 80s to helping shape and guide an Aussie arts powerhouse is a pivotal component of Bangarra's overall journey thus far.
If it sounds as if Firestarter has been set a hefty task — doing triple duty as a celebration of Bangarra, a record of Australia's past and a portrait of three siblings with dreams as big as their talents — that's because it has. But this dense and yet also deft documentary is up to the immense feat, and dances through its massive array of material, topics and themes as skilfully as any of Bangarra's performers ever have. It also never loses sight of what it's about, even though it covers a range of subjects. Again and again, whether chatting through the company's formation with co-founders Carole Johnson and Cheryl Stone, hearing the Pages discuss what they learned from connecting with their culture in Arnhem Land, and inevitably facing the fact that life hasn't only brought happiness and success to Stephen, David and Russell, Firestarter demonstrates the relevance to and through the organisation's works. Attendees at Bangarra's shows have been receiving history lessons for years — some overt, some subtle — and the film makes it apparent how that applies not just in a broad fashion but, for the Pages, in a personal sense as well.
Even if Blair and Minchin hadn't plunged as deeply as they do into everything that's made Bangarra what it is to this point, they were likely to make an entertaining, engaging and informative documentary. The old clips and home videos; the frank interviews from both the past and present; the glimpses at the company's stage productions; the snippets of Stephen Page's equally stellar 2015 film Spear, which adapts one of the organisation's dance works — they're a treasure trove, and Firestarter always treats them as such. It allocates just the right amount of time to approving chats with other prominent arts industry figures such as Sydney Festival's Wesley Enoch and Sydney Dance Company's Graeme Murphy, too, ensuring that their perspectives are valued but never allowed to take over. The movie doesn't merely look backwards, however. Seeing how Bangarra's history continues to mould its future, its creative decisions and the dancers that star in its productions today is just as crucial to the film.
Also part and parcel of Firestarter — which should almost go without saying — is the strong feeling it leaves with viewers. Wanting to soak in and experience everything that Bangarra has to offer is a natural consequence of seeing the company's stage performances, and of watching the aforementioned Spear as well, but Firestarter doesn't let that sensation wane for a second.
Top image: Bennelon, Sydney Coliseum Theatre, by Daniel Boud.