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Review: Compelling, joyful, heartbreaking: The Story of the three brothers behind Bangarra

Updated: May 12, 2022

Debi Enker, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 2021

This carefully calibrated and deeply moving documentary seamlessly operates on a range of levels. It’s a history of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and the brothers instrumental to its creation, but it’s also a bigger story: about the cultural, social and political value of the arts to a society and its importance as a means of expression to the people who make it. Beyond that, it’s a story about First Nations people: the nature of their art; their struggle to be heard; and the significance of their history.

That’s a lot to pack into 90 minutes, a challenge which writer-directors Nel Minchin and Wayne Blair fluidly accomplish while fashioning a compelling, sometimes joyful and sometimes heartbreaking tale of resilience and fragility. Their film features an array of thoughtful and illuminating interviews with people, most of them Indigenous and many of them involved in the company’s development. It also uses archival footage, home movies and clips from Bangarra productions, which are striking even as snippets.

Firestarter traces the journey of the Page brothers, Stephen, David and Russell, from suburban Brisbane to the international stage. “Even when you say it, ‘three brothers’ sounds like the beginning of a Dreaming story,” observes Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch. “The three brothers that go out into the world to tell stories of Aboriginal Australia.”

Bangarra – which means “to make fire” in Wiradjuri – was born in Sydney in 1989 and grew from humble origins. At the age of 24, Stephen became the company’s artistic director. As Enoch explains, “They played different roles. Stephen, the kind of responsible one . . . ‘this is what people need, follow me’. David with the mischievous kind of twinkle in his eye. And Russell, this kind of mercurial physical one.”

The film’s tone is initially upbeat, featuring interviews with the brothers that brim with humour and winning self-deprecation as they recall their upbringing in a household that might’ve been short on money but was filled with music, song and dance.

As well as seeing their fledgling company as a vehicle for self-expression, they viewed it as having a wider role: “I think that through the arts is the only way that we’re going to educate Australia,” says David. “That’s the way that they’re going to accept us as a race and as a beautiful race, with a funky base.” Read more here

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