Adelaide Film Festival 2020: Firestarter

What: Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra

When: 24 October 8.45pm, 25 October 4.40pm (sold out), 29 October 6.00pm

How much: see Adelaide Film Festival website for details

Cultural advisory: this review contains references to Aboriginal people who have passed away.

Image via Adelaide Film Festival

“Using our artform as our weapons is the way we have to fight.” – David Page

Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘making fire’. With its powerful fusion of traditional Indigenous Australian and contemporary dance, Bangarra Dance Theatre has been doing just that since 1989 and is widely recognized as one of Australia’s premier dance companies. Firestarter, directed by Nel Minchin (Matilda and Me, Making Muriel) and Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding), is a documentary tracing the past 30 years of Bangarra history. Inextricable from this is the history of three brothers – Stephen, David, and Russell Page – who each brought unique talents and passion to the company.

Artfully combining recent and historical interviews, archival footage, and home movies, Firestarter weaves a tale that ranges from the intensely personal to the national scale. The story of Bangarra’s performances and artistic evolution is contextualised both by the story of the Page family and by the story of Australia’s shifting political landscape through the decades. While the personal and the political threads are interesting enough on their own, they are further elevated by plenty of breathtaking dance footage.

Image via Adelaide Film Festival

We begin our journey with the Page brothers’ working-class childhood in 1970s Queensland suburbia, growing up in the shadow of assimilation policies and the transgenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations. Stephen and Russell both moved to Sydney to train as dancers at what is now NAISDA Dance College. Bangarra Dance Theatre was founded in 1989 in the wake of 1988’s celebrations of the bicentennial of European invasion and the response from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Stephen became artistic director of the company in 1991, while David composed and performed music and Russell was a star dancer. Without giving away all the details, the company’s journey to critical success and cultural influence is undeniably inspiring, but also marked by loss and pain.

Image via Adelaide Film Festival

Through the history of Bangarra, we trace not only how mainstream Australia has and has not grappled with our dark past of colonization and dispossession, but how Indigenous Australia has had to grapple with the impacts of invasion and the social changes wrought over the past two centuries, and in particular how urban Indigenous communities connect with culture and define identity. In the end, Firestarter is a testament to the power of art to heal, to create community, and to drive social change.

This visually and emotionally stunning piece of cinema is a well-deserved winner of the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival feature documentary award.

5/5 stars

— Matilda Handsley-Davis

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