On The Saphires

I love the bit in the Sapphires where Gail (Deborah Mailman) tells the story of how her light-skinned cousin was stolen from her home by government officials in black cars to be raised as a white girl in a white family. There’s the harrowing scene of the theft of the child, the mother screaming.  Dave (Chris O’Dowd) responds by pausing for a moment and then saying, “Let’s dance.” This is just perfect. He’s heard the story, he can’t add anything to it, he loves her and empathises and wants to dance with her. What a set of graceful, seemingly effortless leaps all in one scene – from a dark moment in Australian history to a notching-up of the romantic storyline. A less skilful movie would have had Gail reach the end of her story, leaving  to “listen thoughtfully” before cutting to another scene. But he responds, and it is just right. All the way through this delightful film, director Wayne Blair balances the darkness with a lightness of touch that engages, never trivialises.

For my reader, if I have one, I’ll just explain that The Sapphires is about four young Australian Aboriginal girls from a mission settlement who go to Vietnam in 1968 to entertain American troops. Their manager, a hard-drinking Irishman (O’Dowd) gets them to drop their country and western routine and start acting like black American soul sisters. Which they do, in shimmering dresses and big hair. It was inspired by a true story. It got a 10 minute standing ovation at Cannes.

The movie is set in that year in history when the whole world was shaken and stirred and never quite the same again: the assassination of Martin Luther King, a new wave of “the troubles” in Ireland, the Vietnam war. In Australia, Aboriginal children were taken from their mothers and given to white women to raise. From the perspective of people this far down the food-chain of power, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the whole hippie thing that is the usual shorthand for the ’60s are all an irrelevance; they could be happening in some other dimension. Blair’s handling of the relevant historical events is contrived but deft, with fragments of black and white footage appearing on television sets that happen to be playing the news at the right time and the right place. When Dave says that he might be white on the outside but inside, he’s a Black Panther, that’s another bit of history – it might go over most of the audience’s heads, but that’s okay. The sense of a kindred spirit between the Irish and the dispossessed Indigenous peoples of Australia is front and centre in the movie but again, it’s given a natural and easy treatment. Dave sings a few lines of A Nation Once Again but other than that, the kinship simply flows out of who these characters are and the history and communities that have made them.

I remember the world that appears in that movie. I remember going to school with the “mission kids” who came to school in their own bus. There was a social apartheid; they came and went separately. I was on Facebook last night, nostalgically trawling through the I Grew Up in Carnarvon page, looking at a class photo c. 1975, with a row of ten year old white girls sitting on chairs; black and white barefoot boys sitting on the ground in front, and the tall people at the back, including teachers. The tall people include Aboriginal girls, much older than the other kids. They were young women, possibly as old as fifteen or sixteen. They lived at the mission on the outskirts of town. Looking at the photo now, it speaks volumes about race and class and history; at the time, living it, it was just how things were. By the end of primary school those girls had all disappeared. They were there, but I had little to do with them. I remember being baffled by some things, but I can’t honestly say I was curious. I never asked why these much older girls were in a class of ten year olds.

I went to the mission only once that I can remember. A neighbour, the mother of our playmates, was taking old clothes to drop off for the mission kids. I remember the mission being its own little village, a little world of its own, with its own little streets.

Our playmates’ baby brother was black. His brother and sisters were white. I assumed he was an orphan with no mother or father of his own. When I heard that he had a sister, I was puzzled. Why did he not live with his sister? I had no sense of the injustice of the situation; I was simply baffled in the way young children are often baffled about the workings of adult society.

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