The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) opens in an idyllic rural setting. A group of young Aboriginal girls run home across the paddocks in the fading evening light to sing for a gathering of family and friends. But this benign atmosphere rapidly switches to terror as white Australian Government officials arrive on the scene and forcibly remove one of the girls from the Cummeraganja Mission community. It is the late 1960s, and State and Federal Government “child protection” policies allow the removal of so-called “half-caste” Aboriginal children from their families, leaving a devastating and traumatic legacy that the film goes on to address.
In these opening scenes, director Blair – making his feature film debut – establishes the lively mix of broadly elaborated history, appealing visuals and musical choices, humour and pathos that distinguish the film throughout. An adaptation of Tony Briggs’ successful musical theatre production of the same name, Briggs and co-writer Keith Thompson have tweaked some details for the screen version but the fundamentals of the story – drawing on Briggs’ mother’s own experiences – remain in place.
In Blair’s film, a year after the 1967 Federal referendum belatedly delivered Australia’s Indigenous population the right to vote, four young Aboriginal women are spotted in a rural talent quest by soul-obsessed, Irish wannabe impresario Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). He persuades the girls to switch from their preferred country-and-western repertoire to soul, with the requisite Motown-inspired styling and stage moves. With their new look and sound, and rebadged from the Cummeraganja Songbirds to The Sapphires, the girls go on to win a competition to entertain American and Australian forces fighting in Vietnam. The trip to the battlefront proves to be a formative musical and personal experience for all concerned.
In the various critically and commercially successful stage incarnations of The Sapphires, the central roles have been played by pre-eminent singer/actors including Christine Anu, Casey Donovan, Deborah Mailman and Rachel Maza. Mailman moves from her stage role as sassy Cynthia (played on screen by Miranda Tapsell) to be the defining presence in Blair’s film as the feisty “Mumma bear” of the group, Gail. Younger sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) round out the ensemble.
Comparisons between The Sapphires and another recent Indigenous themed musical Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009) are inevitable. Both films are set in the late 1960s, derive from successful musical theatre productions and feature Mailman and Mauboy in key roles. More significantly, both are directed by Indigenous filmmakers and harness the conventions of comedy and the musical to tackle some uncomfortable truths about race relations in our recent past.
But rather than simply address the generic and thematic affiliations between these two films, it is important to first situate The Sapphires in the broader context of contemporary fiction films across a range of genres that have focussed specifically on Indigenous characters, themes and storylines. The burgeoning output of Indigenous Australian filmmakers over the last decade or so has resulted in a series of generically and stylistically diverse offerings including Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002), Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009), Toomelah (Ivan Sen, 2011) and Here I Am (Beck Cole, 2011).
In addition to this impressive list, films by non-Indigenous filmmakers, including collaborations with Indigenous individuals and communities, have also resulted in some significant contributions to the genre including Yolgnu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002), Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002), Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, 2006) and Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 2011). Even Baz Luhrmann’s ludicrously overwrought Australia (2008) deals with the story of the Stolen Generations and Aboriginal dispossession – a narrative thread that arguably provides the only moments of genuine pathos in the film – and therefore merits a mention here.
Many of the films listed above have attracted critical attention, some winning local and international accolades, most notably Samson and Delilah, which took out amongst other awards, the 2009 Caméra d’Or at Cannes. As with that film, critical attention has tended to focus on the tough, uncompromising dramas that deal with the contemporary realities of Indigenous life – Sen’s acclaimed teen drama Beneath Clouds and recent vérité docudrama Toomelah, Fletcher’s forceful take on Indigenous masculinity in crisis, Mad Bastards, and Cole’s distaff equivalent, the compelling, generational saga Here I Am. There is much to admire in these and other examples for the way in which the filmmakers have collectively tackled confronting issues from drug abuse and domestic violence to Indigenous emasculation and cultural dispossession, in locations as diverse as the remote Kimberley region and suburban Port Adelaide.
The equally considered way in which recent Indigenous comedies have engaged with a range of provocative issues has arguably been less well acknowledged. From the structurally and visually inventive historical comedy Ten Canoes and the entertaining Stone Bros. to the rambunctious musical Bran Nue Dae, Indigenous comedies have played a crucial role in foregrounding everything from family dysfunction to interracial discrimination.
Describing his film as “the first Aboriginal comedy ever in Australia”, writer/director Frankland made clear his motivations in making his exuberant take on the stoner/road movie/buddy film, Stone Bros. (1). Harnessing specific generic conventions to a distinctive Indigenous sense of humour, the film according to Frankland represented “something quite unique in itself. Using humour to explore the issues facing Indigenous Australians is not something we’ve really seen before.” (2) Released in the same year as Samson and Delilah, and as with that film, focussed on two young Indigenous characters on a physical and emotional journey, the resemblance between the two scenarios ends there. Eddie (Luke Carroll) is thoroughly urbanised and “mostly white fella” but seeking to reconnect with his Indigenous heritage. Eddie’s cousin Charlie (Leon Burchill) is his reprobate, unreconstructed “stoner bro” travelling companion.
Their riotous journey from Perth to Kalgoorlie involves 178 joints, Indigenous drag queens, demonic dogs and other colourful episodes, and allows Frankland the narrative space to take sharply observed pot shots (pun intended) at a range of black and white fella targets: country cops wanting to demonstrate their New Age, non-racist credentials (an hilarious turn by Peter Phelps); “city blackfellas” completely clueless about bush tucker; a dope-fuelled, nightmarish “reconciliation” scenario; in addition to the casual racism the two characters routinely encounter in their travels.
In the process, Frankland tackles, amongst other issues, tensions between urban and remote Aboriginal communities, interracial discrimination, Aboriginal incarceration and generational disaffection. As he notes, the film’s broad comedic premise provides the opportunity to explore “serious issues under a humorous banner. Laughter always disarms people, it makes them open to see other views and perspectives.” (3)
While Frankland not unreasonably describes Stone Bros. as the “first Aboriginal comedy”, the multi-award winning Ten Canoes, released three years earlier, has some claims to this title also. Co-directed by de Heer and Djigirr, and set in Central Arnhem Land, the film is part cautionary tale and part coming-of-age comedy. David Gulpilil’s wry narration draws together two temporally distinct but thematically linked stories of youthful lust and its consequences. The dual plot structure is distinguished by contrasting vivid colour with ethnographic-style grainy black-and-white for the ancestral narrative versus the more recent past respectively. Featuring universally recognisable comic types – testosterone driven teens, portly avuncular elders and fractious women – and loaded with droll asides and scatological humour, Ten Canoes imparts some powerful home truths about tolerance, the importance of traditional laws, generational respect and working for the communal rather than individual good. While the setting is historically and geographically specific, the story’s implications are universal. And the restrained mode of comic delivery ensures the social commentary in de Heer’s screenplay is effectively communicated in a way that may not have been achieved in a straightforward dramatic form.
If Ten Canoes adopts a shrewd, more structured style of comedy, Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae is more closely aligned with the broad tone of Stone Bros. Based on Jimmy Chi’s stage musical, the screenplay details the travails of young trainee priest Willie (Rocky McKenzie). Unhappy at his repressive Perth boarding school, Willie escapes to pursue romance with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) in his hometown of Broome. As with Frankland’s film, the road movie structure in Bran Nue Dae gives plenty of opportunity for comic interludes along with way. Ernie Dingo and Deborah Mailman invest their potentially stereotypical characters with depth and humour, while the risibly happy hippies Slippery (Tom Budge) and Annie (Missy Higgins), and Geoffrey Rush’s missionary zealot Father Benedictus crank the comic register up further. Magda Szubanski as a gun-toting roadhouse madam and youtube stars the “Chooky Dancers” add to the tone of barely restrained hysteria.
But the film’s frenetic pace, atmosphere of high farce and ironic refrain – “There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Ab-or-ig-in-e” – equally allows the screenplay to foreground some unpalatable historical events and their enduring consequences. Dingo’s compelling turn as the tragicomic Uncle Tadpole provides some of the most moving moments in the film, drawing attention to the calculated 19th century mistreatment of the Aboriginal population, and ongoing problems with alcohol, violence and incarceration. Father Benedictus’ repressive presence and paternalistic pronouncements about “useless black fellas” is a telling reminder of institutional attitudes in the all too recent past. And Annie’s well-intentioned but misplaced efforts to engage with a “real Aboriginal elder” and “Dreamtime” culture have an uncomfortable ring of truth, redeemed only through Higgins’ knowingly wide-eyed performance. A substantial commercial and critical success, the most significant achievement of Chi’s screenplay adaptation of his own stage production is the way in which Bran Nue Dae improbably combines an overt critique of the deplorable legacy of colonisation with a relentlessly upbeat, visually and musically engaging story.
As with Bran Nue Dae, The Sapphires clearly depends on musical content and dynamic performances for its considerable appeal. Warwick Thornton’s assured cinematography makes a significant contribution to the film’s striking visuals. But in addition to these more self-evident attractions, it is the film’s mix of biography, comedy and social commentary that makes it a surprisingly sharp-edged contribution to the Indigenous comedy genre.
Following a positive reception at Cannes this year, in the limited reviews that followed, some critics decried the perfunctory treatment of definitive social issues of the period including the US civil rights movement and the push for Aboriginal land rights: “The film can only glibly name-check these issues before resolving them in a hokey fashion.” (4) Blair does indeed use archival footage as historical shorthand and his muted treatment of wartime conditions in Vietnam is also deliberately schematic, arguably in keeping with the narrative constraints and generic conventions of a 100-minute musical. More importantly, these criticisms don’t take account of the concerted way in which the screenplay explores the turbulent late 1960s social climate through a potent combination of comedy and character, rather than didactic historical detail.
Blair signposts key themes from the outset, with a prologue outlining the Stolen Generations story, and early scenes establishing the entrenched racism the girls confront in their semi-rural hometown. But the weight of the film’s forceful social critique is primarily carried by the central characters, and in particular Mailman’s Gail. Older, occasionally wiser and always alert to the possibility of prejudice, Gail is a prickly, permanently defensive foil to the younger, free-spirited members of the group.
Critical of Kay’s earlier rejection of her Indigenous heritage, Gail is also dismissive of Cynthia’s predilection for and dependence on men. When The Sapphires undergo a turbulent musical induction in Vietnam, Gail is alive to racist slurs, economic exploitation and gender discrimination, functioning as an articulate mouthpiece for the critical concerns of the day. And in the amusingly combative relationship that develops between Gail and her white Irish manager Dave, the cross-cultural misapprehensions at work on both sides serve to further illustrate some of the fundamental attitudinal and cultural sensitivities at play in the period.
As with Bran Nue Dae, and in addition to the pull of inspired musical numbers, what makes The Sapphires a genuinely entertaining work is the way in which uncompromising issues and attitudes are consistently leavened with humour. In an early scene, Cynthia jokes that their failed attempts at hitchhiking are not, as Gail contends, because of their colour but “because we’re ugly!” This ludic take on racism contrasts with the subsequent, genuinely shocking depiction of a dying white US soldier refusing to be treated by his African-American counterpart. In denying the clearly superior Songbirds first prize, the overt bigotry of the rural talent show judge – a convincingly loathsome Judith Lucy – is mitigated only by the absurdly woeful nature of the white vocalist’s “winning” performance. Enjoyably extravagant ’60s outfits, stuffy Tupperware parties, Tapsell’s hilariously sexed up Cynthia and O’Dowd’s considerable comic charm combine successfully for the most part with the sobering particulars of the Stolen Generations story, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the Vietnam War.
As recently as 2005, academic and occasional actor Marcia Langton (most recently a compelling presence in Here I Am) was scathing in her assessment of the legacy of Australian film in its “dense history of racist, distorted and often offensive representation of Aboriginal people” (5). Hers is an excoriating evaluation of the 6000 odd fiction and non-fiction films in the history of Australian cinema that have in some way addressed Aboriginality (6). Yet in the relatively short time since Langton’s observations, a number of feature-length fiction films by Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers have redressed that representational imbalance in some small measure and in the process, produced some of the most commercially and critically successful Australian films in recent decades. And a small but significant number of those works have harnessed comic conventions to engage in a substantive way with the events and consequences of our past, confirming Frankland’s belief in the crucial role humour can play in this cultural context. “OK, so you’ve seen and heard sad stories, and it’s important to keep telling those stories, but Aboriginal people laugh too. And it’s OK for you guys to laugh with us.” (7)
- Anders Wotzke, “Aboriginal People Laugh Too. Interview: Stone Bros. Director Richard Frankland”, Moviedex 27 September 2009: http://moviedex.com/interviews/interview-richard-frankland-director-of-stone-bros/.
- Richard Frankland, “Director’s Statement”, Stone Bros. DVD, Madman, 2009.
- John Bleasdale, “Cannes Film Festival 2012: The Sapphires Review”, Cine-Vue: http://www.cine-vue.com/2012/05/cannes-film-festival-2012-sapphires.html.
- Marcia Langton, “Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation”, Rouge no. 6, 2005: http://www.rouge.com.au/6/aboriginal.html.
The Sapphires has been selected as the opening night film at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.