How do boys from cultures with ancient traditions transition into modern manhood?
The question of how we help boys transition into manhood is a common theme in conversations about masculinity in Australia, writes Glen Poole.
The film, Spear, explores what it means to be a man with ancient traditions in a modern world and is based on a 2000 dance piece of the same name, from the artistic director Stephen Page.
It’s a journey that Page knows only two well, having travelled from a family of 12 children in the rural outskirts of Brisbane, with parents who needed “to behave like whites to survive”, to being honoured by mainstream Australian culture with a “Services to Dance” award.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Director Rachel Perkins, describes Page as “a great example of someone who manages to live in two very different worlds with great ease. He is as comfortable with traditional bush people as he is with Sydney Opera House crowds.”
Page’s story is far from common. A more typical experience for men transitioning from ancient cultures into a modern world is a feeling of having “a foot in each world and heart in none.”
The tragic potential of this archetype is embodied in the film by a character called “Suicide Man.” Page told the Sydney Morning Herald that the character is based on an Aboriginal lawyer in Perth who was torn between his traditional community and mining company clients.
“He got a taste of western machoism—as I call it—and he would be rubbished by his mob and challenged by the white people,” says Page. “He had the perfect foot in each world—but was it perfect? He lost his wife and children. He turned to alcohol and gambling, and he ended up taking his own life. I know a lot of stories where men have got a taste of both worlds and they are not able to stabilise that, and they’re exhausted. They’re just ripped apart.”
Indigenous males 20x more likely to suicide than non-indigenous females
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island males aged 25-29 have the highest rates of suicide in Australia, being five-and-a-half times more likely to kill themselves than the average non-indigenous male and 20 times more likely to die by suicide than a non-indigenous female.
It’s an issue that has touched Page’s family. In 2002, his brother Russell, a dancer who performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics, took his own life shortly after premiering Bangarra’s “Walkabout”, a dance piece that Stephen Page had choreographed. He was 34.
As I explore this story through English eyes, I am struck by the universality of male suicide as a “solution” for men of all backgrounds and cultures, who fail to find peace of mind in their experience of being a man.
I’m also aware that while helping boys transition successfully into adulthood is a concern for all nations, I’ve yet to encounter another culture where the phrase “rites of passage” is used in relation to the journey into manhood as much as it is here in Australia.
This is as true for non-indigenous Australians as it is for indigenous communities—and it’s certainly true for Stephen Page.
His first foray into feature-length film as a director is given added poignancy by the fact that his son, Hunter Page-Lochard, plays the lead role of the young man, torn by the tensions between an ancient, Aboriginal culture and a new and fast-growing world.
In an interview with the father and son team for ABC, Hunter says making the film has been “an initiation process in my own becoming of a male”. For his dad, like any father, his hope is that his son makes a successful transition into manhood.
“If he can have a foot in each world and a heart in each, then that is a great thing,” says Page.
Originally published on Talk About Men.