The representation of Indigenous Australians within our national cinema has been at the whim of white filmmakers and characters alike. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are, with few exceptions, sidekicks and supporting characters within narratives following the conventions of Western storytelling.
This is what makes Spear such a bracing, unique experience. Directed by Bangarra choreographer Stephen Page (who also helmed the best section of The Turning), it centres of indigenous characters with an unapologetically indigenous approach. Largely eschewing dialogue in favour of dance, the film avoids the strictures of three act narratives for a moving – if often opaque – example of art cinema.
I admit to lacking familiarity with Bangarra or, indeed, modern dance in general. Undoubtedly, much of Spear’s symbolism – the meaning of its ochre, or the purpose of particular sequences – escaped my understanding as a white Australian used to familiar, accessibly stories. But the pointedly political nature of the film is hard to miss, especially in a jarring sequence satirising the patronising ‘welcome to country’ charades so popular amongst middle-class Australia.
But the cultural specificities that make Spear challenging to viewers like myself is precisely what makes it so important in the context of Australian cinema. Like nothing else.