Stephen Page is an icon of Australian Indigenous dance.
As artistic director of Sydney-based Bangarra Dance Theatre for 24 years, Mr Page has taken the company across Australia, as well as to New York, Paris and Istanbul.
So it’s no surprise that dance is at the heart of the 50-year-old’s feature film debut Spear, which opened to critical and popular acclaim at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September.
“It’s a great opportunity to get your message out there among all those world stories,” Mr Page said following the world premiere.
“The great thing about TIFF is it’s so diverse from blockbusters to arthouse films.”
It’s not the first time the internationally renowned choreographer has helmed a film project. Mr Page directed a chapter in the 2012 portmanteau film The Turning and was the choreographer behind the hit-films The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae.
Based on the 2000 performance piece under the same name, which starred Archie Roach and Wayne Blair, ‘Spear’ is a coming-of-age tale charting the journey of young Djali (played by Mr Page’s son Hunter Page-Lochard) who struggles to understand his identity as an Indigenous man with ancient traditions living in a modern world.
Unlike many of the bigger budget Hollywood films screening at Toronto, Spear’s approach is low-key and uniquely Indigenous.
With barely any dialogue, the highly stylised film melds contemporary dance with traditional Aboriginal music.
The almost entirely Indigenous cast move across the screen in a dream-like fashion through a series of dance vignettes juxtaposing city and rural life.
The score composed by Mr Page’s brother David beats meditatively, creating an evocative soundscape.
“Maybe in 10 years time it will be seen as a masterpiece...maybe it’s got its own spirit."
It’s an ambitious debut feature, but Mr Page is unapologetic about steering away from “the traditional way of storytelling”.
“I deliberately wanted to eliminate the medium of dialogue so when you watch it, you can come and just surrender your senses. I’m not having words tell me what to focus on,” he said.
“Someone once told me Aboriginals don’t talk as much because they respect the land and the environment whereas people in the city are constantly talking. They have quite shallow breaths but when you go into country you have quite deep breathing.”
The heart of the story lies in the bond between Djali and an Aboriginal elder.
Together, they show the cultural complexities of navigating urban Aboriginal life as they go bowling and travel through the city.
“We’re all urban Aboriginals living in a modern day,” said Page.
“We’re so obsessed about our traditional culture, we want to maintain our heritage and our practices, yet we want to walk around in Nike shoes – how can you put a foot in each world? Can you live like that?”
For Mr Page-Lochard, it’s about striking a balance between these two worlds.
“Dad’s always taken me up to country ever since I was little and my mother is from New York City so I’ve always had these two worlds,” said the 22-year-old.
“There’s this sense of identity and culture through land and then this metropolis way of living. So it was a weird contrasting way of growing up.”
Using “personal satellites” of what he has observed, Mr Page wanted to educate international audiences about the social challenges of Aboriginal life using a handful of characters only known as Suicide Man, Prison Man and Dingo Man as they attempt to live “one foot in the Aboriginal world and one foot in the western world”.
With a lively 'Q&A' session following Spear’s world premiere screening at Toronto in September, Mr Page is confident the film will appeal to a wider audience.
“Maybe in 10 years time it will be seen as a masterpiece,” he said smiling, “maybe it’s got its own spirit”.