Araatika: Rise Up! review – Larissa Behrendt’s documentary dares to believe in a better Australia

It’s been a wonderful year for documentaries about Indigenous Australian artists, with Firestarter: Story of Bangarra charting the evolution of the magical Bangarra Dance Theatre and My Name is Gulpilil presenting a portrait, in the spirit of a living wake, of the great Yolŋu actor David Gulpilil.

Now comes director Larissa Behrendt’s Araatika: Rise Up! – which isn’t about artists per se but certainly about creative expression, poised at the intersection of art and sport, following a group of NRL players as they create the First Nations equivalent of a haka.

It’s not on the same level as the aforementioned productions (being a more modest and unprepossessing documentary, with fewer frills) but it’s nevertheless a warming and compelling watch, populated by likeable people pursuing a valuable endeavour. Splashes of visual bravado indicate a desire to create a more cinematically elevated work, which, while only partially realised, sprinkles the film with lovely images such as an opening drone shot of beautiful green terrain that lateralises the title, moving into the air and reaching towards the heavens.

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We’re soon taken to moments of action on the footy oval intercut with vision of an Indigenous dancer in the mid air, in front of a surreal brown background: a tableau divorced from space and time. This reminded me of Laurence Billiet’s Cathy Freeman documentary, Freeman, which also embraces athleticism as a form of expression and is laced with visions of Bangarra performer Lillian Banks playing “the spirit of Cathy”– attempting to channel via interpretative dance the emotional journey of the superstar sprinter.

In Araatika we meet Dean Widders, former footballer and now Indigenous pathways manager for the NRL, who notes that he’s “seen from an early age what rugby league can do for an Aboriginal community”, with its emphasis on teamwork and sticking up for each other. Widders says watching the New Zealand team perform their haka, and observing the pride with which they do so, “always niggled at me”, given the Australia team had no such equivalent.

He sets out on a mission to fill this void, consulting various parties for advice and at one point sitting down with Wesley Enoch, artistic director of Sydney festival, who compares watching sport and experiencing art as similar in the sense that both evoke in observers the feeling of “that’s part of me up there – you’re representing me and my culture”. He then delivers a proposition: “Get a mob together and come and dance,” and “Let’s make sure the rest of the world sees.” He gives Widders a platform at the Sydney festival for a performance, and by doing so, also gives the film-maker a tournament movie-esque trajectory, whereby the subjects work and train for a big third-act finale.

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This is an irresistible development (though it takes almost an hour of running time to get there), marking the kind of narrative inflection point that sometimes prompts a film-maker to modify their original vision to maximise a storytelling opportunity. Behrendt’s direction is a little distractible, partly due to the wealth of potential talking points, some of which are introduced and moved on from quickly.

About half an hour in, for instance, we see visions of people in New Zealand performing the haka in the wake of the Christchurch massacre and are told it was “almost a way of uniting the nation” during a terrible time. This fascinating connection is befitting of more consideration, but it’s over in seconds. Documentarians invariably weigh up such challenges (ie to include or not to include, and if so, for how long) and sometimes settle on half solutions: resolving that the material is too good not to include, but not providing the space for it to be properly considered.

Behrendt’s directorial style, broadly speaking, is that of a cine-essayist, talented at fishing through and arranging evidence, particularly when it comes to political and cultural context – an approach especially well-suited to her previous documentary, After the Apology. Just when you feel you have the tone and trajectory of Araatika: Rise Up! pegged, it has a habit of unexpectedly throwing something lovely or arresting at you – such as the sight of men in traditional Aboriginal makeup and garb walking down a Sydney street, flanking the harbour, en route to the final performance, of which the film’s weight and energy is behind.

Dancers in this finale include Adam Goodes – recently the subject of The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream – and the journalist Stan Grant. The latter eloquently identifies the spirit of optimism implicit in Araatika and other recent docos about Indigenous Australians who have made highly significant contributions to public life, among them She Who Must Be Loved, Gurrumul, We Don’t Need a Map and parts of the Australia in Colour series. Grant sums it up when he reflects on how, during moments such as the time Australians took to the streets in droves in the 1960s to welcome back boxer Lionel Rose from Japan, “You can believe in something else: that there is another Australia, a better Australia.”