Charting a young indigenous man’s journey from metaphorical birth to the hard realities and saving cultural nourishment of urban Aboriginal life today, “Spear” is a unique experience in urgent storytelling through movement from first-time feature director and celebrated choreographer Stephen Page and his indigenous, Sydney-based Bangarra Dance Theatre. Audiences attuned to the film’s wavelength will respond fervidly, while distribs in search of something thematically unique and stylistically bold will take note. The film’s Toronto world preem should accomplish these tasks, gambolling the film to further fest play and beyond.
One challenge for international auds (but not an insurmountable one) is an understanding, or even awareness, of the long and often painful history of interaction between the indigenous population of Australia and the white Europeans sent in British prison ships to colonize the country. Suffice it to say the gulf between the two cultures has been fractious and wide, growing to the point where Aboriginals coming of age in or very near an Australian city often feel suspended between two very different worlds with allegiance to neither.
It is precisely this sense of confused dislocation that Spear addresses. First seen as the center of a ritual clearly evoking an awakening and consecration, young Djali (Hunter Page-Lochard, the director’s son and the best thing about that 2013 inner-Sydney-set Christina Ricci drama “Around the Block”) moves in almost dreamlike fashion through a series of situations emblematic of the indignities and hardships faced by indigenous men in a white world. (One sequence, played for caustic comic relief, even dredges up British singer Charlie Drake’s appallingly racist 1961 novelty tune “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” — which, incredibly, became a hit in both countries.)
Along for much of Djali’s journey is a character known only as Suicide Man (Aaron Pedersen, the taciturn indigenous cop in Ivan Sen’s “Mystery Road”), a tragic figure who, when not ranting or telling off-color jokes, speaks slurrily yet movingly about his descent into alcoholism and homelessness.
While it’s not the principle focus of the work, the role of women in the culture is a constant, hovering presence in the form of characters identified in the credits as Old Lady, Earth Spirit and Woman of Desire. Also notable throughout is the tone of benevolent tenaciousness sustained by Page and his troupe. Sure, life’s been tough, “Spear” says, but we’ve got the fortitude and cultural heritage to survive and grow. That’s a powerfully positive message in contemporary Australia and one that translates easily into any language.
A useful comparison to describe “Spear” in broad strokes is, perhaps, “West Side Story.” Robert Wise, who had never directed a musical, was smart enough to let the strapping choreography of co-director Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein’s remarkable music tell as much, if not more, of the rival gang story than Ernest Lehman’s screenplay. Tellingly, Page’s brother David has marshaled an extraordinarily multifaceted score that synthesizes traditional and contemporary music into an evocative and celebratory soundscape.
A newcomer to the helmer’s chair, Page is no stranger to choreographing for film, having done so for “Bran Nue Dae” and “The Sapphires.” He first directed for film when approached by executive producer Robert Connolly to oversee one of the chapters in the groundbreaking 2012 portmanteau film “The Turning,” and he’s brought most of his crew from there to “Spear.” The result is a fluid, organic melding of dance and camera movement.
The Bangarra troupe is supplemented by a clutch of white male dancers, both of which are usually blue-jean-clad and stripped to the waist. One standout is the formidable choreographer and performer Djakapurra Munyarryun, who, along with Page-Lochard, is the only holdover from the core 2000 40-minute piece that inspired the film (one of two features funded in part by the most recent round of the Adelaide Film Festival’s HIVE production fund, set for Aussie preems there in October).
Most of the indoor work was shot at the empty shipyards on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor, with Bonnie Elliott’s graceful yet solid camerawork and Jacob Nash’s spare, evocative production design creating an industrial purgatory at pungent odds with the sun-drenched water-side and outback sequences. Two different worlds, indeed.