Spear is one of the most spellbinding, beguiling cinematic spectacles I’ve ever been plunged into. First-time feature director (and veteran artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre) Stephen Page delivers a scintillating, near-silent adaptation of his 2000 production that deftly blends distinct forms: it is at once a captivating contemporary dance film, which collides Indigenous and contemporary styles in hypnotic, untried ways, and a heightened, lyrical bildungsroman about a young Indigenous man coming to terms with history, as it collapses into his present. An unconventional narrative that is as intimate as it is allegorical, specific as it is symbolic, Page’s debut offers scarce little strands of plot to string itself together, but this matters little. The film’s substance emerges from abstraction: intoxicating visuals, entrancing dance sequences and brooding sound enmesh into a stunning cascade, whose full significance cannot be wholly grasped.
Page really does immediately plunge you into the thick, or, rather, the lyrical sparseness of Spear. It’s a rare thing to be so immediately transfixed by a film as I was from its first few seconds: we enter at a jagged, rocky Pacific coastline as dancers, encrusted with white powder, move slowly and purposefully against a cragged, cathedral of rocks, their caked bodies emitting a glare that almost supersedes that of the metallic span of sea. Centred in the ritual is protagonist Djali (played with sombre subtlety by Page’s son and Bangarra dancer, Hunter Page-Lochard), and Big Man (Djakapurra Munyarryun, the other dancer from the original production) who are engaged in a highly simplistic though indescribably poetic ritual of birth. Spare as the sequence is, its visually texture is enough to instantly envelop you.
Djali’s self-actualising journey becomes the focus of Spear, as he embodies a kind of surrogate for us, as observers. It’s through his eyes that we encounter a whirring string of dances that bleed endlessly into one another: a gloomy, scene of menacing violence in front of the shell of a burning car; a grim and startling portrait of alcoholism and homelessness; a tribesman taking a subway escalator; and a darkly satirical scene in which Indigenous dancers move robotically to the profoundly racist (though tellingly popular) 1961 song, “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back.” If it sounds overly bleak, it’s not: there’s plenty of human connection, particularly exemplified through Djali’s interactions with women, which ache with a deeply spiritual, tenderness. There’s such a bounty here to feast on and so many different ways to consume it, it’s almost overwhelming, but in these visual elements there is such a focus on balance, on rhythm, control in chaos; most frames could stand alone as awe-inspiring photographs.
The soundtrack (composed by the director’s brother, David Page) fluctuates between traditional Indigenous instrumentation and modern, though primordial-sounding, deep singular tones that throb insistently throughout the film. The threadbare dialogue is affecting and overtly political, as Indigenous characters speak almost directly to us of their hardship. While at first these sequences seemed quite jarring, breaking with the film’s consistent reticence, in hindsight these moments stick you, and stick with you, perhaps the longest.
Slightly hampered as it is by a string of stage-based, static performances, which could have used a less direct adaptation from stage to screen, the film soars as it stretches and widens to a more cinematic breadth. These moments conjure powerful visions of a landscape that is quintessentially Australian, though not like an Australia I’ve ever seen before on film.
Here, Page flexes his knack for defamiliarising the familiar, folding the city into landscape, and flecking all in creeping crepuscular light. City subways are drenched the same drowsy, moody sepia tones as scenes in spindly forests, which the camera tracks through, conversely, like an escalator at a train station. Ghostly half-exposures of dancers slide fluidly and mirroring over one another, chaotically, harmoniously in these scenes. They glide like layers of time. Or maybe they lap like waves. Presciently, Page lets us stay adrift in this ether of imagery for a sensible 84 minutes – a long enough time for an audience to float, untethered.
But Spear is a film that both insists upon, and facilitates, its viewer’s relentless, deep submersion into its stubborn lack of centre. You feel dowsed in the heady, symbolism-soaked imagery. You descend into the echoes of its booming, otherworldly soundscape. You’re rarely given a second to breathe. But you can enjoy the amorphous pressure of it on your senses, on your consciousness. You can be content, never to break surface, or touch bottom, in a film this richly deep.