Art and politics are irrevocably melded in Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra. For the most part, the film is celebratory, tracing the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s trajectory from its founding back in 1989 as an outgrowth of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) to its current position very near the apex of the cultural heap, one of Australia’s most revered cultural institutions and indeed, the most successful Indigenous arts company in the world.
However, co-directors Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and Nel Minchin (Matilda and Me) recognize that both the time period the film covers—and the simple fact that this is an Indigenous Australian story—make this not just a tale of triumph but one of struggle. Both for artistic freedom, expression and recognition, as well as against the myriad issues that continue to confront Blak Australia on a daily basis. So, while yes, Firestarter is first and foremost a tribute to Bangarra and all who sail in her, there are tragic elements in play here that make even the highest accolades bittersweet.