Spear Review

Spear begins with a traditional cleansing ceremony, the recipient of which is a young indigenous Australian man, Djali (Hunter Page-Lochard). He travels to the city, but soon finds his ancient traditions in conflict with the modern world. He is in danger of finding himself with "a foot in each world and a heart in none".

Stephen Page (born 1965) was a dancer until 1991, when he became Artistic Director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. It's in that capacity that he is best known, as well as for choreographing sections of the opening and closing ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics. As I write this in June 2017, he has just become an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

Page's film work began in 2009, with his choreography for the musical Bran Nue Dae and in 2012 for The Sapphires. His debut for the cinema was the "Sand" segment of the portmanteau film The Turning, though oddly the part of that film which used interpretative dance was the work of another director. Spear is his feature debut. It began life as a Bangarra stage piece in 2000, which included in its cast Wayne Blair, who went on to direct The Sapphires.

With a screenplay cowritten by Justin Monjo and Page, Spear subdivides into several distinct sections. Dialogue is minimal, mostly coming from Aaron Pedersen's character. Other than some voiceover from Djali, that's more or less it, as the film relies heavily on its dance and chants and songs mostly in two indigenous languages (Kala Lagaw Ya and Yolngu Matha), which are not translated, at least not in this version. After the cleansing ceremony at the start, which features the principal characters of the film looking on, Djali arrives in the city, and each encounter he has illuminates one aspect of life as an indigenous man in modern Australia. (And it is mostly men - the only women we see other than those in dance troupes are an old lady and two characters identified in the credits as Earth Spirit and Woman of Desire. We do see some indigenous drag queens preparing to go on stage, on the other hand,) We see a garrulous man in his forties sunk in depression and another, older, man (Beau Dean Riley Smith) who is an alcoholic. A radio broadcast talks about land rights, an important topic since the Mabo High Court case of 1992. At one point, Djali and the latter, visiting a bowling alley, see part of a well-known film about aboriginals out of place both in their culture and white people's society Charles Chauvel's final film and Australia's first in colour, Jedda. In another scene, Djali witnesses a troupe dancing to Charlie Drake's novelty song from 1961, an early George Martin production, "My Boomerang Won't Come Back", which was, to use a term not in use then, un-PC enough for the BBC to ban it until the phrase "Till I was black in the face" was amended to "Till I was blue in the face". The original version still made it number one in Australia, though more recently it attracted complaints and a ban. It's the "black in the face" version we hear here.

As a dance piece, Spear works fine, with Bonnie Elliott's cinematography showing up the performers' skin textures very well. I mention that as this is a film which is very much about physicality and a celebration of it, not just the dancers' movements but their bodies too - as mentioned above, almost all male and frequently bare-chested. The film is short enough (just over an hour and a quarter, plus credits) not to outstay its welcome, and its seriousness of purpose is hard to miss, though no doubt many cultural references will bypass some of its audience.

Spear had a limited cinema release in Australia and picked up two nominations in the 2016 AACTA Awards, for its cinematography and Jennifer Irwin's costume design. It hasn't at the time of writing had a UK release of any kind, though this review ties in to a one-off showing in London (see below).


The Disc

Madman's DVD of Spear is dual-layered and in PAL format and is encoded for all regions. The disc has the advisory M rating, though parents reading this should know that this is a likely 15 by BBFC standards, with a fair amount of strong language from Aaron Pedersen's character and a non-graphic scene depicting suicide.

The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the cinematic 1.85:1. Spear was digitally captured on the Arri Alexa, and the results are as pristine as you might expect for a film which was digital from shooting to completion and was most likely only shown in cinemas as a DP. Colours are strong and blacks are solid.

This mostly English-language film has a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround soundtracks. Both sound much the same, though the 5.1 track is mixed a little louder and has deeper bass, which is quite noticeable in some parts of the film. There are some noticeable directional effects, such as trains passing in both surround channels. There is also an audio-descriptive track in Dolby Surround, which gains points for effort as this is very much a visually-driven film. Given the relative lack of dialogue, the hard-of-hearing subtitles spend much of the time describing the music and sound effects. There's an odd glitch at 3:43 when a stray bit of formatting code becomes part of a subtitle. As mentioned above, the singing in indigenous languages is not translated.

The on-disc extras comprise Spear's theatrical trailer (1:48) and, customarily for this distributor, "Madman Propaganda". Here, these are trailers for Putuparri and the Rainmakers, The Turning, Matilda & Me and Sucker. However, also on the disc is a twenty-page DVD-ROM study guide. Aimed at secondary schools, this is a particularly useful guide to the film with analysis of its main sections, and helpful in picking up references that passed me by in the film itself. Given its intentions, it inevitably asks more questions for students to discuss. There's a factual error, though: "My Boomerang Won't Come Back" wasn't a UK number one - it actually got to number fourteen in the singles charts.

Spear is showing on 18 June at 12.30pm at the Rich Mix, London, as part of the Origins Film Festival.

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