Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra review – an engrossing celebration of artistic creation

Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin’s beguiling documentary deepens the already magical experience of watching the Indigenous dance company perform

A critic ought to tread carefully when reaching for a word like “indescribable”; those kinds of adjectives can put us out of a job. If you can’t describe it, what’s your purpose? Yet that word is one of the best ways to characterise the elusive, amazing qualities of works produced by the world-renowned Bangarra Dance Theatre, the subject of an exquisite new documentary directed with a fittingly rhythmic sense of motion and movement by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding, Cleverman) and Nel Minchin (Matilda & Me, Making Muriel).

The company was founded in 1989 and has put on more than two dozen productions, as well as the exhilaratingly original 2015 dance movie Spear, which I argue was one of the most significant Australian films from the previous decade.

As we learn in Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, this narrative is about many things: brotherhood, performance and virtuosity, intergenerational trauma. It is also a revision of Australian history that, like NITV’s You Are Here series and to lesser extent SBS’s Australia in Colour, challenges Judeo-Christian dominance with a focus on Indigenous perspectives.

Djakapurra Manyurrryan in Ochres
Djakapurra Manyurrryan in the Bangarra production Ochres. Photograph: Philippe Charluet

Dance is inseparable from Bangarra, of course; Bangarra is inseparable from Indigenous culture, and Indigenous culture is inseparable from the history of a land now called Australia. Because of this relationship between dance and country, the film is always a hair’s breadth from giving us a movement, a contortion, a twist of the body: something to comment on the complexities of human experience in ways that profoundly rearrange the context in which we ordinarily do so.

Many interesting talking points are raised throughout. Reviewers once criticised Bangarra for fusing contemporary and traditional elements (says Stephen Page, “They wanted us to do the token old work; they didn’t want to see us moving into the millennium”). There was the massive task of preparing for the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, leading to a spectacular result. There is also – at the heart of Bangarra story – tragic elements involving the Page family best left for the film to reflect on.

Early in the piece we see home footage of the Page family including the kids performing, playing dress-ups and gallivanting around. We also see footage of Tent Embassy protests from 1972 (for more on this subject, consult the electrifying 1972 documentary Ningla A-Na) and a 1982 news bulletin reporting on how Queensland back then was the only state in Australia that still had “one law for whites and another for blacks”.

Bangarra dancers
Stephen Page: ‘They wanted us to do the token old work; they didn’t want to see us moving into the millennium.’ Photograph: Daniel Boud

Except that reportage is incorrect, because it doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Indigenous laws. The difference between Indigenous and colonial laws was the subject of the 1982 documentary Two Laws, and has been explored in films including High Ground and the TV series Mystery Road.

In terms of Bangarra’s stage productions, there are snippets of various works over the years, including – to name a few – Fish (those lovely aquatic colours!), Rites (the rich reddy-orange lighting!), Blak (those vertical rows of burning spotlights!) and Bennelong (that huge circle suspended in the air!). The magic of the stage, however, cannot be captured on the screen – especially not for works like Bangarra’s, which do not descend from the same lineage that informs much of western culture, such as Aristotle’s highly influential Poetics, emphasising elements that include plot and dialogue.

Stephen Page on Yirrkala beach.
Stephen Page on Yirrkala beach. Photograph: Ricky Schamburg

Movies are mausoleums: fossilised representations of the past that embalm actors and subjects who (given that the art form originated in the late 19th century) are now more likely to be dead than alive: a collection of ghosts emblazoned through light and shadow. Theatre on the other hand, which thrums with life, has to be ephemeral; it has to be of and for the moment. Attempting to capture that is like trying to store lightning in a bottle.

Blair and Minchin know this, lacing Firestarter with moments of performance but doing so with an understanding of the strengths and limitations of the documentary format. They create a beguiling kind of history lesson and an engrossing, fast-moving celebration of artistic creation, among many other things.

In the age of virtual and augmented realities, it probably won’t be long before the Bangarra dancers will appear, life-sized, in our living rooms, moving through our space, in all their majesty and beauty and spirit and strength, once again bringing songlines and subterranean connections, combining old and new in the most sublime ways.

My initial inclination was to write “until then, watch Firestarter” – but I am sure we will want to watch this film then too. The fact that the story of Bangarra is (hopefully) far from finished in a strange way almost adds to the film, implying – not ephemerality, exactly, but a sort of true-to-life incompleteness. What an experience. What a joy. I’ve watched it twice, and on both occasions emerged deeply moved.

• Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra is in cinemas around Australia from 18 February


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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