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Taking up the fight

Karen Pearlman previews Urban Clan, Michelle Mahrer’s film about Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Page brothers

Karen Pearlman is a choreographer, filmmaker and writer currently working on projects in all 3 media.

Choreographer Stephen Page and director Michelle Mahrer	Choreographer Stephen Page and director Michelle Mahrer
photo Michael Bianchino
Layers of time, culture, pain, beauty, geology, grit, finance, taste, politics and art all come into play in the layers of imagery, media, and stories in Urban Clan, a new hour long film about the Page brothers and Bangarra Dance Theatre. Urban Clan, directed by Michelle Mahrer, is about David (composer), Stephen (choreographer) and Russell (dancer) Page. But by being about these 3 it is also about layers—layers of traditional Aboriginal and western cultural expressions, of family and its impact on art and history, of dance and why people do it.

However, even to say Urban Clan is a film ‘about’ something skips a layer of its intention—Urban Clan was devised not just as a film about art, but a film which is art. It tries, sometimes quite successfully, to push the line between documentary and artistic filmmaking. Michelle Mahrer is clear that just bunging a camera in front of a dance is actually “putting a barrier between the audience and the dance.” A barrier which can be overcome by making use of cinematic technique, and “more adventurousness.”

Her adventurousness shows itself in a layering of cinematic source material. The idea of this film, Mahrer says, “was to integrate cinema verite, performance in a cinematic style, and the poetic and spiritual feeling of the Aboriginal world by using a real and poetic interplay all the time.” And at the same time to “create a visual style capturing David, Stephen, and Russell as MTV generation young guys.”

One of Mahrer’s layers is video tape which, she says, the eye perceives as ‘real’. She videotaped interviews in a ‘verite’ documentary style and dance performances in a cinematically conscious style. Then there is archival footage—still photographs and 8mm home movies—which provide some great moments of humour and insight. Worth a few more than a thousand words, the archives show that the Page family has always been close knit, creative, funny, extroverted, and great performers.

Video and archives are then mixed with handheld film footage. Mahrer says that film is perceived by the eye as ‘artistic’ when juxtaposed with video. It is used here for landscape shots which take on a double edge as both real landscape and artistically manipulated image. When analysed at that level it is possible to see this cinematic technique as an apt metaphor for the Page brothers’ relationship to the land. As Aboriginal people they are understood to have an important connection to the land. But they are urban Aboriginals and they are in the process of reconciling that real connection which may sometimes only exist as a memory or a hope, with their own urban experience. Through their artistic practice, a process of reconciliation in itself, their feeling for the land becomes an artistically created image.

The artistry of the Page brothers on an aesthetic level is not questioned in this film. While Mahrer is aware that they have been criticised, this, she says, is “missing the point.” “Here are 3 Aboriginal people doing something positive which is resonating much beyond their career. Bangarra is not about these bits of choreography, that technique or this phrase...The film focuses on a bigger picture of what Bangarra is doing for culture, and the Pages as role models of what it is possible for a young Aboriginal person.”

Urban Clan nonetheless presents a very convincing picture of the dancing, the layer around which all this is centred. Mahrer is quick to credit cinematographer Jane Spring and editor Emma Hay who have both handled the material with sensitivity, skill, and the quality of humility which is the perfect complement to skill—their work draws attention to the dancing, not to itself. The hand held camera moves with the dancing so subtly as to be virtually imperceptible. The edits are silky and wise. The use of montage in some of the dancing scenes may be controversial to dance purists, but I appreciated the intercutting of literal images with the abstract movement. These montage sequences underline the film’s effort to focus on the Page brothers’ intentions by giving us clear visual cues as to what their intentions are.

Urban Clan with its layers of media, images and personalities crystallises the Page’s dance into a mission which comes across as important, interesting, and amazingly pure. In a key moment David Page asks his father “didn’t you fight?” referring to the massacre his father’s tribe experienced and the consequent loss of home, language, and culture. His father spreads his hands in a gesture so articulate and painful as to make a dance in itself. In one shrug he says it all: ‘We fought, we couldn’t fight, we lost, we are still fighting, we are still losing, we do the best we can with what we have, it’s over to you now’. And his sons have taken up the fight.

Urban Clan, A Portrait of the Page Brothers and Bangarra Dance Theatre will be broadcast on July 7 1998, at 8:30 pm on ABC-TV as part of the Inside Story series of documentaries. It will also be broadcast in the UK in July on the BBC as part of their Midsummer Dance Series.

Karen Pearlman is a choreographer, filmmaker and writer currently working on projects in all 3 media.

RealTime issue #25 June-July 1998 pg. 7

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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