Entertainment & Arts

The Sapphires shines light on Aboriginal Australia

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Media captionThe Sapphires' cast and director spoke to BBC News about the project

A feel-good film based on the true story of an Aboriginal girl group battling prejudice in 1960s Australia wowed Cannes and is now a hit Down Under.

The Sapphires is based on the true story of an Aboriginal girl group from the same family who left Australia to sing soul music for US troops during the Vietnam war.

The film got a rapturous response at Cannes in May and now opens in the UK after receiving an equally positive reaction at the London Film Festival last month.

Director Wayne Blair, who is of Aboriginal descent, admits Indigenous stories which gain international recognition can struggle to attract mainstream audiences at home.

But the film is without doubt a box-office hit in Australia, with screenings Down Under generating takings of 14 million Australian dollars (£9m) in nine weeks.

Image caption Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell (l to r) play the titular singers

"Australia is ready for more Indigenous stories," he says. "I think we have been ready for 30 or 40 years.

"It's not just the capital cities that are seeing this film, it's the rest of Australia. It's beautiful."

When the film had its premiere at Cannes, Chris O'Dowd was told by the head of the festival to stop dancing to Soul Man on the red carpet.

Yet the Irish star of Bridesmaids and TV's The IT Crowd had every reason to celebrate.

The film, in which he plays hapless band manager Dave, received a 10-minute standing ovation and promptly landed a distribution deal with US producer Harvey Weinstein.

'Little indie'

"I knew it was good and I really enjoyed it," says O'Dowd. "But I thought it was a little indie Australian film that would at most make it to New Zealand and Tasmania.

"I didn't think it was something that was going to try and take on the world."

That success has stoked interest in the real-life Sapphires, only two of whom did what their on-screen counterparts are shown doing in the film.

Lois Peeler and her sister Laurel Robinson went to Vietnam, but their two cousins, Beverley Briggs and Naomi Mayers, remained in Australia.

Image caption Chris O'Dowd plays Dave, their hapless but well-meaning Irish manager

Speaking to Woman's Hour on Radio 4, Peeler says the experience was "quite frightening".

"I hadn't really given a great deal of thought to the fact that we were going into a war zone," she said.

"When we got off the plane in Saigon, moments later there was some bombing at the airport."

Robinson left her two-year-old son at home to go on tour. More than 30 years later, he penned the script on which The Sapphires is based.

Before it made it to the big screen, though, Tony Briggs' story inspired a successful stage musical in Melbourne and Sydney.

Blair says the original Sapphires were "a touchstone for black American acts" in Australia at the time, adding that the family barbecued with The Jackson Five.

Stolen generation

An all-Aboriginal cast was found to represent the singers in the film, including Australian household names Jessica Mauboy and Deborah Mailman.

Mauboy, a chart-topping singer Down Under and a former Australian Idol contestant, says she felt a lot of pressure to represent the actual Sapphires properly.

Yet the four lead actresses had plenty of research material to draw on after meeting their real-life counterparts before shooting.

Image caption Mauboy (second from right) is known Down Under for her appearances on Australian Idol

"The audition process was eight months so we worked really hard on these characters," says Shari Sebbens, who plays the role of Sapphire Kay in the film.

"We all felt really strong in being able to do them justice."

The on-screen quartet believed it was important that the film involved an Aboriginal cast and crew.

"It's the first time that Indigenous Australians [like us] - or one of the few times - have really been able to define our identity by ourselves," says Sebbens.

The film touches on Australia's "stolen generation" - victims of a government policy of assimilation that was in place until the late 1960s.

Thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live at state institutions or with white families.

Official apology

In 2008 the Australian government gave an official apology to its Aboriginal communities. Yet actress Miranda Tipsell, who plays Sapphire Cynthia in the film, says many people affected had already passed away.

"I feel we are still very behind as a country," she says. "It's taken a very long time for mainstream Australia to acknowledge us.

"When Indigenous issues are addressed in a film, it doesn't sell that well because it's not popular and people feel confronted with it.

Image caption The film features a string of soul hits originated by Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and others

"But the best way is to deliver it with a lot of heart and a little bit of humour, because that's the way Indigenous people have survived through hard times."

"There are some very, very serious themes in here and there is an element of sugar with the medicine to it," agrees O'Dowd.

"You can learn through joyousness and I think it just about manages to skate that line."

The Irish actor also believes the soundtrack helps tell the story. "It's all about soul music. It is about that struggle. It's about empowerment.

"It's about never saying no and not allowing people to administer your life to you."

"It hits those hard-hitting subjects in a really joyous and celebratory way and it doesn't make anyone feel targeted or guilty," Sebbens concludes.

"This is how we survived, through family and laughter and joy."

The Sapphires is out in the UK and Ireland on 7 November.

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