'Spear': TIFF Review

Spear - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A striking but very challenging collision of film and modern dance.

Sydney's Bangarra Dance Theater dances with the camera.

A highly abstract allegory about coming of age as an Aboriginal man in contemporary Australia, Stephen Page's Spear plays out almost entirely without dialogue, as a series of dances in indeterminate spaces. Adapting work he has done with the Sydney-based Bangarra Dance Theater, where he is artistic director, Page makes his feature directing debut with what would appear to be zero compromises. Beautiful but baffling to anyone expecting tangible narrative (more attendees at the first press-and-industry screening walked out than stayed to the end), it will impress initiates of the dance-on-camera scene but have little reach to other auds.

Hunter Page-Lochard plays Djali, a young man seen first in some kind of cleansing ritual atop dramatic seaside rock formations. (The character is only named in the credits, where other players are referred to as "Suicide Man," "Dingo Man," and so on.) He proceeds to be something of a viewer surrogate, an outsider in various hard-to-read scenarios for most of the film. There's what might be a standoff between gangs under the headlamps of an old car; an ancient dirt-throwing invocation in a thicket of trees; an encounter with a ranting homeless alcoholic in a subway passage.

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Meaning for each scene either must be invented or requires more knowledge of Australian lore than most Stateside viewers will possess, but the episodes do hazily coalesce into a kind of emotional arc. More important, they deliver a good deal of kinesiological pleasure, with dancers employing styles both ancient and modern. (Page handled the contemporary movement, while Djakapurra Munyarryun choreographed traditional dances.) Page frames the action more tightly than some dance fans may expect, but edits intelligently, moving us around to engage us in pieces that generally don't feel as if they'd been merely ripped from a stage production and blocked for film.

Much emphasis is put on body paint, crusty powders, and other adornments, especially in a recurring image of a man hanging upside down in a cavelike place, covered in crumbling white mud and sprouting what appear to be roots and feathers from his spine. Djali eventually joins him briefly, some time in between going bowling with an Aboriginal elder and dancing a pas de deux with a young woman. Whatever the character gains from this moment of incubation, he eventually emerges where he began, shirtless by the sea, one of many men summoning something from the sky that outsiders cannot understand.

Production company: Bangarra Dance Theater

Cast: Hunter Page-Lochard, Aaron Pedersen, Wwngenga Blanco, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Bangarra Dance Theater

Director: Stephen Page

Screenwriters: Justin Monjo, Stephen Page

Producer: John Harvey

Executive producers: Robert Connolly, Liz Kearney

Director of photography: Bonnie Elliott

Production designer: Jacob Nash

Costume designer: Jennifer Irwin

Editor: Simon Njoo

Music: David Page

Sales: LevelK

No rating, 84 minutes