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The Sapphires at Cannes

The Sun Herald's Ed Gibbs caught up with some of the people behind The Sapphires at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Wayne Blair was at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago trying to raise money to make a film about a 1960s Aboriginal girl group who entertain the allied troops in Vietnam.The film would be Australia's answer to the Supremes, with girls doing the Pony, frocks and a potentially dazzling soundtrack. But it was still difficult to make the money stack up.

Now, the film director is back in Cannes with The Sapphires, 200 auditions and a couple of investors later, having been given a plum slot in the biggest film festival in the world. The Weinstein Company has already picked up the film and is selling it to the world.

"The last 12 months have been a roller-coaster," Blair said, "and it started in a rehearsal room in Melbourne Theatre Company!"

The Sapphires: star Deborah Mailman in Cannes.

Shining moment … Deborah Mailman in Cannes. Photo: Sam Leighton-Dore

The Sapphires is based on a hit play by Tony Briggs, who discovered the story when his mother mentioned in passing that she had once gone to Saigon to sing with a group made up of her sisters and cousins. When told the movie of the story was being shown in Cannes, she thought they meant Cairns, rather closer to home.

Blair was in the original production at Melbourne Theatre Company and the Belvoir theatre company as an actor; he had also made several successful short films, one of which - The Djarn Djarns - recently won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. "I was in the right place at the right time," he said.

Both play and film amalgamate nine or 10 members of the Briggs family and friends into four composites; most of their dramatic travails and romances are imaginary, but the core of the story is true. What became clear as they worked on the original script, he said, was that it was not just about four individuals. It was also the story of its times.

The Sapphires film.

Mailman in The Sapphires with Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens.

In 1968, Blair points out, Aboriginal people had only just won the right to vote in several states. "Before that, [they] counted as flora and fauna," Blair said. "But these young Koori women had the same wants and needs as other women in Australia at that time, you know. Just simple things. We all want love. They wanted respect in their country town, to be seen as citizens and not as plants or animals. And they wanted to achieve things. It's a film that shows that Aboriginal people did participate in the world in 1968."

The four singers are played by Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy - both well-known faces - with newcomers Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens. Even the famous contenders did half a dozen auditions. "Deb said she wanted to audition," Blair said.

The band's manager is played by Chris O'Dowd, who had just had a huge Hollywood hit with Bridesmaids. "But Chris is so down-to-earth, it's not funny. They all looked after each other."

The real Sapphires are now in their 60s; three of the Briggs aunts came back to work at the frontline at a Redfern medical centre. "So they achieved things, but what they chose to do was come back and serve their community rather than be famous," Blair said. "They trust Tony implicitly, but I think they still don't know the ramifications of being in Cannes; it's like my mum thought I meant Cairns and a short trip to Queensland."

When the film has its premiere in Melbourne on August 9, he said, he thinks the crowds will bring home how far their story has gone. For them now, it probably all feels a very long time ago.

"They're very worldly women and they have a sense of wisdom about them," Blair said. They only sing at family occasions now, he adds. "But they love a tune."