'The Sapphires' Australian musical comedy lifts profile of aboriginal people

The Sapphires
Chris O'Dowd, from left, as Dave, Deborah Mailman as Gail, Shari Sebbens as Kay, Jessica Mauboy as Julie, Miranda Tapsell as Cynthia, perform in concert as the Sapphires.
Image provided by The Weinstein Company/Lisa Tomasetti

A new movie about how a group of Australian aboriginal women became soul singers who entertained U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War opens in the Twin Cities this weekend.

Praised as a feel-good story, "The Sapphires" has been a hit all over the world. It's also given a lift to the aboriginal community in Australia, says director Wayne Blair.

Based on a true story, "The Sapphires" follows four young women from a remote aboriginal community in the Australian outback in 1968. When one of them learns the U.S. Army is hiring groups to perform for the troops in Saigon, they want to audition. They don't know how to go about it until they cross paths with Dave Lovelace, a wandering Irish talent scout.

"Just for fun, let's say you do go to Vietnam -- what would you sing?" he asks the young women. "Because this may have escaped your notice, but you are black and you are singing country and western music. It's just wrong."

"Well, what do you think we should sing?" one girl asks.

Wayne Blair
Wayne Blair is pictured in the MPR News studios in March 2013. He says the story of the Sapphires has become inspirational to young Aborigines back in Australia.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"Soul music," he answers.

The would-be singers are reluctant at first, but with Lovelace's help The Sapphires are soon on their way to Saigon where they experience war and fall in love.

Blair says while there have been numerous of films about Vietnam, "The Sapphires" presents a new perspective.

"To see it from the point of view from these four aboriginal girls and this sort of white Irish guy, I don't think you will ever see again," Blair said.

"The Sapphires" began as a stage show. Blair, who is aboriginal himself, acted in the production and said it was a huge crowd-pleaser.

"Because at the end, people, you know, had a cry and they had a laugh and they felt more human again," Blair said.

Writer Tony Briggs, who created the stage play, is the son of one of the original Sapphires. A few months after the show closed, he asked Blair -- who had only one film short to his credit -- to direct a movie adaptation.

"And I was sort of like 'Yeah! Cool!' Not really knowing the full ramifications of it," Blair admits. "A little ignorance is bliss and then five or six years later we were getting the money to make it. A couple of years after that, we made it and here I am in Minneapolis-St. Paul."

A few other stops along the way included taking the movie to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was a huge splash. Audiences and critics enjoyed the movie's mix of humor, history and soul. For Blair, the international attention is well and good.

"But the best thing about it is that young aboriginal people, young aboriginal females in Australia, they are inspired by these four black women," Blair said.

The Sapphires
The Sapphires find life is very different from Australia when they arrive in Vietnam.
Image provided by The Weinstein Company/Lisa Tomasetti

The history of Australian aboriginal people since the arrival of European settlers has been one of suffering, racism and brutality. Late into the 20th century, in a situation not very different from the Native American boarding schools in the U.S., the Australian authorities forcibly removed aboriginal children and placed them with white families. That thread is also woven into "The Sapphires."

"Aboriginal people just got the right to vote in 1968 so before that they were counted as plants or animals on the Australian census," Blair said.

Getting the vote did not improve things much even then for the Aboriginal people. As the members of The Sapphires discover, life outside Australia could be very different -- and better -- even in war-torn Vietnam.

"Forty years ago, the first time they were really equal was in a place called Vietnam, in a city called Saigon," Blair said.

The Sapphires draws positive attention to the aboriginal community in Australia. It's also put a spotlight on Blair who admits that it makes him uncomfortable, particularly as a first-time director.

"I just think sometimes, 'Oh what do they think? Wayne Blair just flukes it. Wayne Blair just makes one film and he's travelling the world,'" Blair said. "Like on Facebook or Twitter, I just don't like to put where I am anymore because it's sort of a bit more 'What am I -- a show pony?' I just try to be as humble as I can. But I can't help it if Harvey Weinstein's bought the film. It's not my fault."

He can't help it, but he won't fight it. Blair is returning to Australia for a television series set in the large aboriginal community in Redfern, an inner-city suburb of Sydney that is now undergoing gentrification. Then Blair hopes to come back to the U.S. to direct another film.

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