REVIEW

Firestarter: the Story of Bangarra tells the story of the Indigenous dance company

Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra M, 100 minutes, 5 stars

After two decades, moments from the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony can still send a chill down the spine and bring a tear to the eye.

In Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin's insightful and moving documentary on the story behind the dance company Bangarra, we revisit the moment Cathy Freeman stood inside the ring of the Olympic Flame and lit its fire, feel chills as a Bangarra song man, Djakapurra Munyarryun, claps ochre into the sky and the crowd goes wild and palpably feel the excitement of the folk who came from Country far away to the city for the first time to dance for the world.

The moments are moving in and of themselves, but within the context of this film and with time, are better understood and emotional.

Bangarra is one of the world's most successful First Nations dance companies, and certainly one of Australia's most successful companies.

Blair and Minchin's film charts the 30-plus-year history of the company, whose name comes from the Wiradjuri word for making fire, primarily as the story of three brothers.

In the early days of its formation, begun by dancers who met at Sydney's National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) in the early 1980s, the company took the risky move of appointing a young Stephen Page as its artistic director.

Page hailed from suburban Brisbane, from a large family whose home movies show off a love of music and dancing and whose parents encouraged performance.

He seems to have come as a package deal with brothers Russell - a tall, muscular natural dancer of incredible beauty - and David, a talented musician.

A scene from Bennelong in Firestarter. Picture: Daniel Boud

A scene from Bennelong in Firestarter. Picture: Daniel Boud

Working to the vision of Stephen, Bangarra emerged as a company of note.

With the debut of their show Ochre in 1995, the company's shows became must-sees, and by the time Sydney was gearing up for their big Olympic Ceremony, Stephen Page was an obvious choice as visionary choreographer.

But we're only half-way through the documentary at this point and while the company was only just at the beginning of a seemingly endless run of success, the toll that the Page brothers would pay for a life in the spotlight is heavy indeed.

The story of Bangarra sits alongside the last half-century of Indigenous political, cultural and social history.

Sometimes the Bangarra mob are the chroniclers of that history. Sometimes they're right there in the thick of it.

Bangarra performed just before Paul Keating whispered a word into Stephen Page's ear as the former prime minister took the stage to make his famous 1992 Redfern Speech.

As the whole of Australia saw Bangarra's success as their own success, doors opened for other performers and a wider sharing of culture.

Filmmakers Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and Nel Minchin (Matilda & Me) draw on a handful of talking heads for context, but allow the mesmerising filmed dance performances to chart the evolution of Page's and Bangarra's vision.

A disembodied voice at the film's opening says that "Dance is good medicines" and they're right. Watching this film is a tonic. Some of it is bitter to swallow but you feel so much better for having consumed it.

For the first time in living memory three Aussie films held the top three spots on the Australian box office last week.

How about we all go see Firestarter this weekend and make it four?

This story Brilliant look at Bangarra's history first appeared on The Canberra Times.