27 September 2023

Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra Dance Theatre

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

Directors: Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair, Icon Film Distribution.

The 30th anniversary of Australia’s most iconic performing arts company — Bangarra Dance Theatre — is marked with the release of this film. It tells the personal family story of three young Aboriginal brothers — Stephen, Russell and David Page — who turned the newly born dance group, through its spectacular growth to where it is today.

The feature documentary is also a story with a deeper meaning. It’s about the way that ‘art can become a weapon that helps a people to survive and a nation to heal deep scars’. It is a story of stirring ingenuity and the personal costs involved of the win.

The Bangarra Dance Theatre — Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word for making fire — has started a blaze that still burns fiercely. This is a celebration, which combines the Page family’s home movies, interviews with the company’s leading figures and an archive of its most iconic performances.

Bangarra emerged at a time of growing reflection about Australia’s colonial past, and increasing calls for action to change the nation’s future. It was formed in 1989 out of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre. Interviews, including with co-founders Carole Johnson and Cheryl Stone, set the scene visibly and persuasively. As adroitly intertwined through an array of talking heads and dance snippets, archival footage helps do the same. Firestarter believably captures how and why Bangarra came to be, the mood at the time, the world it was born into and the importance of its ‘quest to give Indigenous dance and dancers a bigger platform’.

Co-directed by Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding) and Nel Minchin (Matilda & Me, Making Muriel), this documentary about Bangarra’s beginnings, mission and evolution draws upon the organisation’s biggest cinematic achievement to-date.

Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra Dance Theatre releases on DVD and Digital on
7 July.

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