Spear review – a weird, wonderful milestone of a dance movie

Australia’s first contemporary Indigenous dance film is an exhilirating cinematic debut for choreographer Stephen Page and his talented team of local film-makers

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A near-silent contemporary dance movie tracking the troubled history of Indigenous people in Australia and the coming of age of a teenage boy trying to make sense of it all?

Descriptions of Spear, a strange and beautiful beast adapted from work developed by Sydney’s Bangarra Dance Theatre, will suggest a film that is, God forbid, unique – a word almost entirely extinguished from the cinematic lexicon.

The prophecy is true: what a spectacular achievement; what a strikingly original piece of work.

A promotional still for the Australian dance film Spear
A crisp 84-minute running time has Page whizzing through locations, from roadsides to coastal rocks. Photograph: Supplied

This first feature film directed by renowned Australian choreographer Stephen Page (Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires and a segment of The Turning) may be virtually dialogue-free, but the cast’s emotive physical performances and a stunningly evocative score – composed by Page’s brother David, fusing traditional and modern Aboriginal sound – builds an experience that virtually explodes with meaning.

What form that meaning takes and what relevance it has to the viewer will differ wildly from person to person. But Page’s sensory feast – an enigmatic dreamscape of pictures and sounds, connected like swirling drapery by editor Simon Njoo (who also cut The Babadook) – can be shared by all.

There isn’t a plot per se; more a collection of themed dance sequences extended from a 2000 performance piece of the same name. Many of the interior sequences were shot in Cockatoo Island’s desolate shipyards by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott, who infused These Final Hours with a heavy, drowsy, beautiful look.

A crisp 84-minute running time has Page whizzing through locations, from roadsides and coastal rocks to train station tunnels and nondescript low-lit performance spaces.

Djali (the director’s son Hunter Page-Lochard) partly embodies the role of the audience, wowed and confused by the stimuli around him. And it’s through his wide eyes that the film plays out, as if he’s stuck in a trance and his visions are ours too.

In the closest Spear has to a standard film performance, a homeless and haggard-looking Aaron Pedersen (billed as Suicide Man) is introduced – an electrifying moment. He bellows at passers-by in a subway passage, crying out to be heard and understood, before he is surrounded, embroiled, by dancers.

For some this might be a little too stage-oriented and, while every scene brings new wonders, there is a slight sense of repetition. But for me the film’s greatest power came from the entrancing, at times shocking, way Page and his team imbue contemporary environments with ancient relevance. As if two panes of time have been folded into a single window.

There’s the sight of a campfire on top of an upturned car; a tribesman’s first encounter with an escalator; dancers in jeans and body paint. There’s also a scene in a bowling alley where gaudy neon signs violently contrast with the simple garb of traditionally clothed Indigenous men. Jedda plays on a TV screen in the background, Page’s hat tip to a watershed production (this 1955 film was the first Australian feature to cast two Aboriginal actors in the lead roles).

Spear marks a more interesting milestone: the first contemporary Indigenous dance movie. What a weird and wonderful head trip, something less watched than experienced. Close your eyes and it’s an exquisite soundscape. Turn the audio off and it’s striking visual art. Combined, a vial of dark and beautiful magic – on every front, an exhilarating achievement.


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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