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The Sapphires Interviews: Wayne Blair and Shari Sebbens

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Left to right: Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens in The Sapphires

I'll admit, I love a good myth. And when the myth involves Cannes, a feel-good film about a culture I'm yet unfamiliar with and Harvey Weinstein, my fancy is tickled to the max. Of course, those infamous words uttered to an LA Times journalist, who then tweeted about them -- "Harvey Weinstein just grabbed my arm and said: 'Have you seen The Sapphires? The Artist just happened again" -- have since been retracted, but for me the legend remained. And that legend carried mighty high expectations.

Which brings me to the fact that I hardly expected to be sitting in a giant theater in the Middle East watching a film about Aboriginal heroines in war-time Vietnam and yet The Sapphires, at the Dubai International Film Festival, worked in that environment so well, and in every way.

The film in itself turned out to be all that I wanted it to be and more. More entertaining, more instructional, more humorous and so deeply heartfelt that I now understand its path to glory, conquering legions of fans in Australia and around the world. Started as a journey down his family's memory lane for writer Tony Briggs, the film was the perfect followup to his award winning hit play in Australia by the same name.

During a magical afternoon, while sitting on a terrace in Madinat Jumeirah with birds chirping all around us, I caught up with The Sapphires handsomely understated director Wayne Blair and beautifully smart actress Shari Sebbens, who plays Kay. They shared their thoughts on the film, what it means to be an Indigenous Australian and why sometimes it's good to want to be Ralph Macchio.

You made a wonderfully enjoyable film and yet also taught your audience what it meant to be Aboriginal in 1960s Australia. Did you set out to mix a bit of education with your entertainment?

Wayne Blair: I think it was definitely the two scriptwriters' goal, Tony [Briggs] and Keith [Thompson] and it being Tony's mom's story. And then as the director you are always sort of pushing the writers and working together as a team, and yes, it was definitely a goal to have a little bit of our history in a film that might reach the world.

Do you think cinema has a way of teaching, reaching across cultures?

Wayne Blair: For sure. It goes to many more people. That DVD will be on the shelves for the next forty years.

Shari Sebbens: Sometimes these beautiful stories are told but they can preach to the choir. You know the only people that are watching these movies are those who don't really have to watch these movies in terms of their attitudes and mindset towards Indigenous Australians, for example. And that's where The Sapphires has sort of bridged that gap. People who wouldn't necessarily go and watch an Indigenous film, would go to watch this film three times and take their girlfriend, their mother or take their brother.

The film is inspired by a true story, right?

2013-03-18-THESAPPHIRES_Dir.jpg Wayne Blair: Fifteen years ago, Tony was talking with his mom, when she casually said "that reminds me of the time we went to Vietnam and sung music for the American troops..." in the midst of a basic conversation in the laundry, while watching TV. And Tony went "hum... Mom, what was that little bit?" and so got hold a story that had laid dormant for 40 years.

How do your personal experiences relate to what the characters go through in the film?

Shari Sebbens: When I first read the script, I got so excited just about the fact that finally there's an Indigenous person like me being portrayed on the screen. There is this really old school stereotypical notion in Australia that to be Aboriginal you have to be black, anything but white or pale skinned. What The Sapphires does is open up the conversation that I've been having my whole life, the fact that being Indigenous isn't about the color of your skin, it's about your connection to your culture. And sadly what the film touches on is that it was taken away from a lot of Indigenous people for many, many years in Australia.

Wayne Blair: My father served in Vietnam [Blair's father Bob Blair was the first Aboriginal Regimental Sergeant Major in Australia], I grew up in a war family. What I loved about the film is that it's like those films I grew up with from America, like The Karate Kid, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and they were entertaining but you also wanted to be Matthew Broderick or you wanted to be Ralph Macchio. And you wanted to have Elizabeth Shue as your girlfriend... It wasn't those high hitting, powerful, beautifully shot European films, but I grew up on that diet and I guess it's what I love. That you can sit in that cinema and you'd have a little laugh, and shed a tear and you'd walk out feeling human again. That film would motivate your life and that's what I enjoyed about making this film. But I never realized it would have the success that it's having.

The film was a huge hit in Australia.

Shari Sebbens: Absolutely. My nieces and nephews, who are ten-year-olds to sixteen-year-olds, have taken to it and it's going to be their Karate Kid. It's going to be that kind of classic film.

Harvey Weinstein, his now infamous phrase, then The Weinstein Company picked up the film for distribution and is releasing it in the US on March 22nd. How did that all come about?

Wayne Blair: I think he retracted that statement! But anyway Harvey loves a good story. The films on their slate at the moment, they are all beautiful stories, they have that warmth, and also that sort of sadness but you want to go and watch them. We feel very blessed that they got onto it early on because he watched it by himself in London, in Soho, before anyone else even knew about the film really, and grabbed it in 27 hours. Then we got a standing ovation at Cannes, on a Saturday night, everyone was really happy that the film had touched so many people.

How is the situation for Indigenous actors in Australia at this time?

Shari Sebbens: It's the best now that it's ever been. The most important thing about this period that we're in at the moment is that from production to writing to directing and acting, Indigenous people are doing it all, instead of a non-Indigenous writer, director, producer making the story and then getting us to act in it. Some really beautiful stories have been told that way and as a result of that non-Indigenous Australians are identifying with us more than they have ever had.

Wayne Blair: I think the quality of Indigenous cinema in the last five to ten years, and now with a new kind of commercial cinema like The Sapphires and TV series like Redfern Now and Gods of Wheat Street, it's opened up Australia a little bit. I'm not too sure how long it's going to last, I don't want to be too negative, but it's definitely opened up a little bit more than it's ever been. We'll see...

Images courtesy of the Dubai International Film Festival, used with permission