Emily Komiyama, Milk Bar Mag, 12 February, 2021
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains names and images of deceased persons.
Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra is more than just your typical tale of triumph and overseeing adversity. It is a tale of that adversity. Following the humble beginnings of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 1989 to leading the way in Australia’s performing arts industry 30 years later, this is a documentary that will simultaneously make your heart sing and shatter at the same time.
Bangarra was founded at a time of intense racial division that is still felt today.
The 1988 bicentennial celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet sparked a protest in Sydney of 40,000 people. The energy lit a fire within members of the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) who desired to branch out and form Australia’s first Indigenous contemporary dance company. With founder Carole J. Johnson and the jump across from NAISDA’s Page brothers, Bangarra was born.
David, Russell and Stephen Page were the heartbeat of Bangarra, and Firestarter digs into the archives to highlight this. Scattered with home movies of their early years and archival footage and interviews of the 3 brothers on the rise, there is an immense personal spirit to the film that you don’t expect.
Stephen became Artistic Director at the spring chicken age of 25. David was the mischievous one keeping everyone on their toes, and Russell was the mercurial one, who used his body on stage more than his words in real life to express himself. This is just as much their film as it is Bangarra’s.
With the dance company in its infancy, politic turmoil was brewing. From the bicentennial march, Paul Keating’s acknowledgement speech in Redfern and John Howard’s refusal to apologise, it was time for the country to change. At its core, Firestarter is an Indigenous story, so putting a spotlight on the company’s triumphs with the backdrop of the political climate and its consequences felt necessary.
The fusing of the two – art and politics – is what makes Firestarter so poignant. An exhilarating fly-on-the-wall tale of a theatre going from strength to strength, while its blood and bones were falling apart. Stephen is the only remaining Page brother still alive, and the film covers the loss of David and Russell with an unavoidable political cloud hovering over their passing.
Directors Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin have amazingly blended a theatre documentary, a tribute to the past, and a microscopic insight into the past, present and future of Australia’s relationship with its First Nations people. The intercut shots of Bangarra performers dancing in slow motion powerfully connect all these elements.
It’s evident that one of the key messages to take away from this film is that even through centuries of trauma, inequality and injustices – hope and resilience can be borne out of art. In fact, it drives it. Even in the depths of his grief, Stephen created his best work. As his voiceover smooths over the opening scenes of Firestarter:
‘Art, Dance, Music. They are such good medicines. Storytelling is the best medicine you can have. It sustains us as a society.’
You can’t pull any more truth out of that when watching this film. It is an absolute must-see. The term Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘to make fire’. And that is exactly what has been done here. For someone who had no knowledge of Bangarra or the Page brothers, I left this film with my heart pumping with love, loss, grief and inspiration.
Do not miss this wonderful piece of Australian cinema.