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From little things big things grow!

The 2008 World Cup curtain-raiser between the Indigenous Dreamtime Team and Aotearoa Māori at the SFS was not only the catalyst for the annual All Stars match; it also inspired the creation of the Unity Dance that is now the subject of an award-winning film.

On the eve of the historic February 12 All Stars fixture at CommBank Stadium, the documentary, Araatika:Rise Up!, is set to reach a broader audience when it premieres on SBS and NITV on January 26 and Dean Widders hopes it will spark discussions about Indigenous culture and history.

Adam Goodes, Dean Widders, Stan Grant (front) and Michael O'Loughlin.
Adam Goodes, Dean Widders, Stan Grant (front) and Michael O'Loughlin. ©Joseph Mayers/NRL Photos

“I’m really proud that the film is going to be on television and hopefully it will be a conversation starter in loungerooms around Australia about why we don’t know much about Indigenous culture and why it’s not taught in schools,” Widders said.

“I feel that Araatika:Rise Up! tells a story that raises those questions and starts those discussions in a positive way.”

Widders, who is the NRL’s Indigenous Pathways Manager, was the driving force behind the Unity Dance, which has been performed by the Indigenous All Stars team since 2015 and featured at The Vigil on January 25 last year.

That performance, in which Adam Goodes, Michael O’Loughlin and Stan Grant joined Widders, George Rose and Cody Walker at Barangaroo, is among the concluding scenes of Araatika:Rise Up! - but the origins of the Unity Dance began a few kilometres away at the SFS on October 26, 2008.

Trailer - Araatika: Rise Up!

The game against Aotearoa Māori, which was played before the 2008 World Cup opener between the Kangaroos and Kiwis, was the last appearance on Australian soil by Widders, who was heading to England to finish his career after playing 159 NRL matches for the Roosters, Eels and Rabbitohs.

While the Welcome to Country match, won 34-26 by the Dreamtime Team, ignited the passion of the Indigenous players, including Preston Campbell, who successfully lobbied the game’s administrators to back the All Stars concept, it also left Widders feeling unfulfilled.

“It was the first time the Indigenous team had played on an international stage and we wanted to represent our culture, so we learned a dance a couple of days before the game and tried to perform it against the Māori haka,” Widders told NRL.com.

“We probably didn’t have the same feeling so I felt that we didn’t represent our culture the best way and I wanted to help the players create a dance that would mean something to them so that when they performed it, they felt the connection with it.”

When the haka first met the war cry

For Widders, it has been a journey more than seven years in the making since he first outlined his vision for the Indigenous team to perform a dance of their own at a camp in the Hunter Valley ahead of the 2014 All Stars match.

With the help of Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page, Widders worked with the players to create the Unity Dance that is now performed in response to the haka before kick-off in the All Stars clash.

“It started with the Māori game and their culture against ours,” Widders said. “We had that feeling in our stomachs about the fact that we didn’t do it right and it was something that gnawed away at me for a number of years.

“Now we actually get to perform the dance against the Māori, but ours is not a war cry like the haka - it is a Unity Dance and an expression of our culture, so we are not trying to imitate the haka.”

Araatika:Rise Up! screened at the Sydney Film Festival last November and received an Audience Award for Best Documentary.

“I’ve been really proud of the reaction to the film,” Widders said. “Indigenous people feel that we don’t get to share and showcase our culture, and learn Indigenous stories, so people are just really keen on seeing positive change off the back of the film.

“I think the film is certainly a big starting point in getting these discussions on the table.”

The Indigenous All Stars v Māori All Stars men's, women's and touch matches will be played on Saturday, February 12 at CommBank Stadium.

For tickets starting from just $25 go to tickets.nrl.com/allstars

Araatika:Rise Up! is available to watch on SBS on Demand after airing on SBS and NITV at 9.30pm AEST, Wednesday, January 26.

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Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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