Spear is unlike any film you’ve ever seen. It combines contemporary dance with a variety of urban and rural locations to create an atmospheric portrait of the lives of indigenous people. Director Stephen Page comes from a dance background, and he chooses to tell the story with images rather than a conventional plot. The director’s son, Hunter Page-Lochard, gives standout performance as Djali, a young man who must decide what it means for him to come of age in this particular time and place.
To what extent is Spear based on the live performance version of 2000? What were some of the steps you took to make the shift from stage to screen?
I had wanted to adapt the dance theatre production of SPEAR into a film since we first staged the production in 2000. As a dance work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, it was very different in the sense that it crossed into a theatrical medium with myriad forms from song to dance to acting. I thought it had all the ingredients to be able to translate into film. I really wanted to bring a lot of that theatrical aesthetic that’s in a Bangarra performance into a cinematic context. I didn’t want to lose that, and that’s why I worked with my key creatives from Bangarra, including Production Designer Jacob Nash and Costume Designer Jennifer Irwin, along with my brother David Page who’s the Composer. I really wanted to keep that creative clan of artists that I work within the theatre and bring them with me and the dancers on this journey. I think in the end, the making of the film very much reflects the collaboration of artists and filmmakers who brought their spirits and hearts to the work, with the courage to place a foot in both worlds of film and theatre to tell this story.
Hunter Page-Lochard is wondefrul as Djali. How old was he when you created the original dance work? and how old is he now? When did you decide to cast him as Djali?
He was 7 when he was cast in Spear and is 22 now and an established theatre and film actor. Bangarra is, and always has been, like a big clan family, so when I knew there was a young boy in Spear, Hunter was the natural choice and took to the stage so naturally. I think creativity must be in his DNA.
The look of the film’s many diverse locations has a powerful impact. How did you plan the shooting schedule? Did you storyboard the sequences? How difficult was the film to shoot and cut?
Bangarra goes back to Country most years, and so the scenes shot on Country (in North East Arnhem Land) are Djakapurra Munyarryun’s Country – he has been a cultural consultant to the company almost since it began, and appears in both the stage and screen versions of Spear. Some of the other scenes were shot at Kiama, south of Sydney, and we also shot on Cockatoo Island. Planning had to fit around Bangarra’s performance schedule and also weather conditions – and then of course there were budget considerations! Cinematographer Bonnie Elliot is just extraordinary and our aesthetics and approach were very similar, and she got from the beginning what we wanted to achieve. The shoot was quick – about 3 weeks all up – and finding the right balance in editing was tricky but we were lucky to have editor Simon Njoo on board who did an amazing job.
The film’s message about the particular challenges faced by young aboriginal men is quite clear, yet there is very little in the way of traditional exposition, either by dialogue or narration. What convinced you that a feature film in this style could be understood? How has it been received?
I think dance is a universal language, where meaning can be conveyed without words – and sometimes it’s what you don’t say that becomes more powerful. But it’s not my role as the director to explain anything; I want the audience to take what they need from it. We all know of the huge and complex problems facing our Indigenous populations around the world, but I think ultimately Spear has a message of hope. The film has been incredibly well received so far, both from international and local audiences, so I’m very proud of what we’ve created.