Firestarter – movie review

Not to be confused with the 1984 thriller that starred Drew Barrymore as a young girl who could start fires with her mind – Firestarter is a documentary that looks at Australia’s Bangarra Dance Company, one of the foremost indigenous dance companies in the world.

The company was founded in Sydney in 1989 by Stephen Page, who was just 25 at the time. It was formed out of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, but from those humble beginnings it has emerged as the foremost indigenous dance troupe in the world and has toured successfully overseas to great acclaim. Stephen has been the artistic director of the company since its founding and he created works that explored themes of tradition, culture, identity, and the trauma of the stolen generation and the deep scars of the past. Their performances have fused contemporary dance with more traditional dance. One of their most successful productions, which even travelled internationally, was Bennelong, which told the story of the aboriginal who befriended Governor Arthur Phillip and played an important role in the early settlement of Sydney.

Firestarter deals with themes of brotherhood, identity, culture, racism and discrimination, and even explores the historic mistreatment of aboriginals in Australia. Interspersed through the film are glimpses of some historic moments that have shaped the painful struggle of the indigenous people for recognition. We see Paul Keating’s historic Redfern speech and the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which Stephen helped choreograph, which add context to the history of the company and its mission.

But Firestarter is also a more intimate look at Stephen and his family, and how their experiences shaped much of the company’s ethos and dance program. Stephen collaborated closely with his brothers David, a former child star who composed most of the music for the company, and Russell, the youngest brother and the more troubled dancer, who quickly became the core of the company. There are some deeply personal revelations here, especially as we learn that both David and Russell committed suicide after suffering depression even at the height of their careers.

Co-directors Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and Nel Minchin (the 2016 documentary Matilda & Me) adopt a straightforward and largely chronological approach to the material here. They draw upon a wealth of archival footage, television news reports and a wealth of home movie footage to give us insights into the company itself, the creative forces that shaped their approach, and the relationship between the three brothers. There are also interviews with many people integral to the establishment of the company as well as many former creative personnel and dancers that give us more insight into Stephen and what drove him. There is also a wealth of footage of the various performances from the company that show that deep sense of tradition and culture and history.

Firestarter is a celebratory film that illustrates the impact of both the Pages and the Bangarra Dance Company on contemporary Australian culture.

Greg King
For more of Greg King’s writing on film, check out his blog at  filmreviews.net.au

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