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Study Guide: The Sapphires

Adapted from Tony Briggs’ play inspired by his mother’s experience as an entertainer in war-torn Vietnam, The Sapphires tells the story of four women from an Aboriginal mission community who achieve success entertaining American troops.The Sapphires has been described as a feel-good movie about bad things.

Year levels: 9 & 10

Curriculum: History, English, Media Studies, Intercultural understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures

Some background: filling in the gaps

The Sapphires is a mix of personal, family, Aboriginal, national and international history.

Personal and family history

Writer Tony Briggs used his mother’s personal history of entertaining troops in Vietnam as the launching place for The Sapphires story. He was 33 before he really started to think about the extraordinary experience his mother, a shy Aboriginal teenager, had had in Vietnam:

I really started writing the story of the Sapphires when I was having conversations with mum, probably in I'd say 2000. I noticed that she would be mentioning Vietnam a lot. And I knew about it, of course, but I'd never really asked her about it. It occurred to me that there was a lot of history that I've been missing out on simply because I haven't been asking.

Tony Briggs

Real life Sapphires: Laurel Robinson Lois Peeler Beverly_Briggs Naomi Mayers

What about your history?

Sometimes people don’t want to talk about the past, and it is important to respect that. However, often people are pleased to have the opportunity to share their stories.

  • What are some of the memorable events that members of your family or some of your older friends have experienced in their lives?
  • Do you think are stories you might be missing out on because you have not asked the right questions? Explain.
  • How might you go about finding out more about the experiences of people close to you? Why is this important?
  • Think about and describe something you have done or experienced that has had a lasting impact. Explain why.

Aboriginal history after colonisation

The story of The Sapphires is set in Cummeragunja, a mission settlement on the banks of the Murray. Cummeragunja plays an important but complex role in the cultural identity of the Yorta Yorta people.

  • Research the History of Cummeragunja. The Koori History website is a good place to start.
  • Why were the Yorta Yorta people moved to Cummeragunja?
  • What are the details of the Cummeragunja Walkoff? Why is this considered such an important event in Aboriginal history in the post-colonisation period?
Cummeragunja mission station

Freedom ride

Ever since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been engaged in a struggle to assert their rights to the land they inhabited for generations prior to European settlement.

In the 1960s Indigenous Australians connected with the African American civil rights movement in the United States and staged a freedom ride inspired by the Freedom Riders who travelled through US southern states to highlight ongoing issues of segregation and racist violence.

  • Find out more about the Australian Freedom Ride. You might like to begin here.
  • What were the significant events in the United States that inspired it?
  • Why did Indigenous Australians identify so deeply with the African American people, even though they have such a different history and experience? Which experiences did/do they share?

Civil rights

  • Find out more about Martin Luther King and his deep significance to the civil rights movement. The horror with which the news of his murder was met is portrayed with great impact in The Sapphires.
  • Why was the 1967 referendum such a significant moment in the long and continuing process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians?
  • While the 1967 referendum did not give Aboriginal people the right to vote, this history of the Indigenous vote gives some useful contextual information.

The Stolen Generations

The real-life Sapphires have discussed the experience of having children removed from their family:

Our aunties - our mother's sisters - were taken away from Cummeragunja. Our grandmother would follow them around. There was a kind man who worked at the Aboriginal Protection Board who would let Nanny know where Aunty Margaret or Aunty May were, and she'd travel to see them. When they were taken away, it nearly killed her. It broke her heart.

Laurel Robinson, original member of the real-life Sapphires

Read the full interview at The Sapphires: where are they now?

  • Find out more about the history of the Stolen Generations.
  • An important narrative element of The Sapphires is the removal of the fair-skinned Kay and the impact this has on her connection to her family and its shared history. Find out more about the personal experiences of people who were removed from their families.
  • Watch clips from Darlene Johnson’s documentary Stolen Generations.
  • Find out more by visiting the Healing Foundation
  • What is the effect of having both family and cultural history taken away?

Australian and international history

The main action of The Sapphires narrative is set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

  • Find out more about this war and Australia’s involvement.

Exploring the film

Initial response to the film

  • What was your initial response to the film? Explain.
  • What was your response to the subject matter of the film?
  • Which aspects of the film do you consider most distinctive?
  • Which scene was the most memorable?
  • The film is a surprising mix of music, humour, romance and war. How did this affect your viewing experience?
  • What did you learn from the film? Explain.
  • What did you think about the ending? Why?
  • Compare your response with your classmates’ reactions to the film. Discuss similarities and differences. Support your opinion with evidence from the film, while also considering other students’ opinions and observations.

The message

  • How would you describe the main message of the film? Jot your description down.
  • Compile the responses on the whiteboard and then, as a class, see if you can decide on a description of the film message that you all agree with. Don’t worry if you can’t. Most interesting and complex texts are far from straightforward and not easily ‘summed up’ in a few words. However, as you discuss the aspects of the story that you consider the most important, you will learn more about the film text and about your own interpretation.

Narrative

SAPPHIRES

The Sapphires is a very rich narrative, featuring a number of characters, many different locations and a range of events and issues.

  • Map the events that take place in the story, identifying the events that are purely to do with the personal stories of the fictional characters and those that are connected to actual historical events.
  • Choose a scene that refers to an actual historical event (the Stolen Generations, racism in rural Australia, the Vietnam War) and explain how it connects with and adds to the main story of The Sapphires.

Newsreel footage is used to communicate the layers of history behind the story of The Sapphires.

  • Work together as a group to identify the source of each of these pieces of footage and their significance to the story being told.

When watching The Sapphires, viewers need to process a lot of information very quickly without losing interest in the story. The filmmakers use our identification with the characters and their journey from innocence to experience to drive the story and our connection to it.

  • What are some of the ways that we are encouraged to identify with the five main characters?

Many stories focus on outsider characters, as there are few viewers who have not, at some time in their lives, felt like an outsider.

  • Explain how each of the five characters is represented as an outsider.
  • How does this contribute to the way the story is told?

In The Sapphires, we are connected to all of the five main characters but we particularly identify with the character of Gail.

  • What is Gail’s role in the story?
  • Describe Gail’s journey and what she learns. What do we learn from her experience?
  • How would you describe Gail’s relationship with the other characters?
  • How does this grow and change. Explain with reference to Dave, Kay, Cynthia and Julie.

The beginning

Because feature films need to tell a story efficiently – usually in less than two hours, the opening scene is very important in setting up the story.

  • What happens in the opening scene of The Sapphires?
  • When is it set?
  • Which characters does it feature?
  • What kind of world does it introduce us to? Explain.

The brief opening scene is followed by a montage of black and white newsreel footage.

  • Try to identify each of the historic events and people depicted in this rapid-fire sequence that takes us from 1958 to 1968.
  • Why do you think director Wayne Blair has chosen to include each of these pieces of newsreel footage? How do they connect with each other?
  • How effective is this montage sequence in laying the ground for the story that follows?

The ending

The Sapphires ends as it began – in Cummeragunja. Many feature films use a process called bookending where the ending refers back to the beginning. This process is usually used to highlight the changes that have taken place in the characters’ lives and the knowledge they have gained and also the changes that have taken place in the viewers’ own understanding.

  • Why do storytellers often use the narrative device of the return home?
  • How effective is it as a conclusion to The Sapphires? What has changed? What has been learnt?
  • What expectations are established in the beginning and resolved or remain unresolved at the end?
  • Which aspect of the complex story told in The Sapphires is highlighted in the film’s conclusion?
  • How successfully are the issues at stake resolved? How important is this resolution to the viewer’s experience of the film and their understanding of the message of the film?

The conclusion of The Sapphires not only offers a resolution to the suffering and misunderstanding of the past, but also looks to the future.

  • How does it do this?
  • What feelings are evoked in the viewer in the concluding scene?
  • Why does director Wayne Blair choose to conclude the film with a musical number?
  • Why does music offer such an effective way of concluding a film?

Music

The musical numbers are an important element of the film and are integral to our emotional connection to the characters and their story. The music also reveals important information about the story and the characters.
The first song we hear is Run through the Jungle. This song was released in 1970 by rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. This song is considered to be written as a protest against the Vietnam War.

  • Do you think it matters that it wasn’t written until two years after the events depicted in The Sapphires?
  • Does it matter that this song is a mainstream rock song written by a white American band?

The Sapphires is a ‘jukebox musical’ as it contains no original songs but instead employs well-known, classic songs to tell the story.

  • What do these familiar songs add to the viewing experience?

The first diegetic song we hear is sung by Gail, Kay, Cynthia and Julie when they are children. They sing for their family and community. (Something is diegetic if it is part of the story. In contrast, Run through the Jungle is non-diegetic.) This song Ngarra Burra Ferra recurs in the story.

  • When does Ngarra Burra Ferra recur?
  • What is being communicated through this song at this point in the film?

There is a moment of peace and harmony when the sisters sing Yellow Bird with their mother.

  • What are some of the things we learn in this scene?
  • Why does music and singing play such an important role in this family?

The first piece of advice Dave gives the Cummeragunja Songbirds is: Forget Country and Western music and concentrate on Soul. Soul is a style of music developed by African American people and is specifically connected to the experience and culture of these people.

  • When the group prepares for their audition, he gives them a convincing reason for choosing to sing Soul rather than Country music. What does he say and how does what he says connect the struggle of Indigenous Australians with that of African Americans?

In the clip (below), you can find out about the history of Ngarra Burra Ferra and how it connects the Yorta Yorta people of Australia with African American culture.

Find out more

Discover more about Australian music history through this celebration of female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music stars.

Comedy and humour

The audience of The Sapphires is also drawn into the story through the use of humour. In particular, the three sisters are very funny, especially in their conversations with each other. Gail is particularly quick with verbal putdowns.

  • Is it surprising that a story about racism, the breakup of families and war should also be very funny? Can you name other films that combine humour with darker themes?
  • What is the role of humour in the story of The Sapphires?

When Gail and Cynthia are trying to hitch a ride into town so they can participate in the talent contest, a car speeds past without stopping. Gail (correctly) attributes the snub to their skin colour but Cynthia counters: ‘No, it’s because you’re ugly.’

  • Why did the writers choose to introduce humour at this point?
  • Does the humour cancel out Gail’s comment and underplay the sisters’ experience of racism or has the point been made?

Focus on some other moments when harsh realities are linked with humour.

  • Describe how this works and the effect of this tonal mix. (Tone communicates to the audience the appropriate response to what is happening in the narrative. Sometimes a film can make us uncomfortable as viewers because we are not sure about its tone and the response that is expected of us.)

Genre

The Sapphires draws on many different genres. A film genre has a set of codes of conventions that give the audience an idea what to expect and to help us read and respond to a film. The Sapphires uses codes and conventions from the following genres: romance, war, action, musical, comedy, drama, history and social critique.

  • In groups, research the codes and conventions that relate to these genres.
  • Each group should focus on a different genre and consider how its codes and conventions relate to specific scenes, camera techniques, narrative elements and character traits.
  • Each group should then choose a scene for close analysis and consider how it displays the codes and conventions of the genre they are exploring.
  • As a class, draw on each group’s exploration of genre to consider which genre might account for the main storytelling arc.

Characterisation

Each of the main characters, with the exception of Kay, is distinguished by a particular kind of comic behaviour or dialogue.

  • Explain how this works with reference to each character.
  • Why is Kay portrayed as a more serious and less sassy character?
  • What aspects of her experience might have contributed to her more restrained personality?
  • Alternatively, what aspects of the three sisters’ experience might have led them to be more assertive and to present a tougher exterior to the outside world?

When each of the five main characters (Gail, Cynthia, Julie, Kay and Dave) is introduced, we are immediately given an insight into the way they choose to present themselves to the world.

  • How is each character introduced?
  • What do we learn about them?
  • How much does our initial impression of these characters change?
  • Does our understanding of some of the characters develop and grow more than others. Explain. Why might this be the case?
  • What about representation of African American characters? Are they as developed as the other characters? What is their role? What is the effect of the scene after Martin Luther King’s death?

Themes

As a class brainstorm the themes explored in the film, like war, racism, family, belonging, cultural identity, gender, personal growth.

  • After you have identified the themes, consider how each of them is explored in the film narrative.
  • List key scenes that develop each theme.
  • Explain how character is used to expand the theme.

Family & belonging

Although the themes of war and racism are integral to the film narrative and the exploration of human relationships, The Sapphires places particular emphasis on personal and family relationships.

  • What are the most important relationships in the film?
  • How do they contribute to the exploration of belonging and identity? (You may like to divide into groups with each group focusing on a different relationship and how it contributes to the themes of family and belonging.)
  • How is the community of Cummeragunja represented and how does it add to the theme?
  • How does Dave fit into this exploration of family and belonging? What is the point being made in the letter he writes proposing marriage to Gail?

The four young singers leave their homes and travel to a warzone.

  • How do they respond to their new environment?

Often leaving home is experienced as a loss and there is no doubt the sisters miss their family in Cummeragunja, but it is clear that they gain more from their experience than they lose.

  • What do they gain? Why? What does this new environment offer the young women that they have not previously experienced?

The singers are participating in a war being fought on someone else’s land. For the most part, the Vietnamese people and their plight remain in the background of the film. However, in an important scene in the film, a connection is made when Kay speaks Yorta-Yorta to ask the Vietnamese people who have stopped their car for permission to pass through their country.

  • What kind of connection is being made between the Yorta Yorta and Vietnamese people in this scene?
  • What aspects of Indigenous culture and custom is Kay drawing on at this moment?
  • What do Kay’s actions communicate about her sense of identity and belonging?
  • Why is this moment important to rebuilding the relationship between Kay and Gail?

Performance and identity

The Sapphires explores the growth in experience and confidence of the four young women that comes from escaping the limitations imposed by the racism of Australian society. But it also emphasises that this growth, their talent and their exuberant self-belief is rooted in the nurturing and rich cultural environment of their home on Cummeragunja mission.
One of the ways this is communicated is through the way each new performance is presented. The series of performances tell us about the changes taking place in the young women’s lives and each new performance is traced back to their earliest performances in front of family and community.

  • This picks up on the actual experience of Laurel Robinson:
    My parents and aunties, uncle, grandmother were putting on concerts to raise money. It was just a simple thing - to raise money for - just for food to help the community and that's how we became singers. You can watch the rest of this interview here.
  • Note down each performance – beginning with the little girls performing in 1958, moving onto the talent contest in the pub, the audition and then the appearances in Vietnam and the final concert back at home.
  • What does this performance trajectory tell us about the singers’ growth from innocence to experience? What qualities did the group already have that laid the ground for their success?
  • An interesting exercise would be to capture a still image of each performance. As a class, consider how the mise-en-scène (everything you see in the frame) adds to your understanding of the group’s journey of discovery.

Production context

After achieving enormous success with the stage version of The Sapphires, writer Tony Briggs worked with Keith Thompson, an experienced screenwriter, to write the screenplay.

  • In this interview, Keith Thompson shares insights into the pre-production process of writing a script.
  • Look up Keith Thompson’s writing credits on IMBD.
  • Consider Briggs and Thompson's experience and knowledge and describe the expertise each brought to the project.

The Sapphires was a big production carrying huge expectations and many actors, and aspiring actors were keen to be involved. The casting process for the four members of the singing group was exhaustive. Deborah Mailman was the only established actor chosen, while Jessica Mauboy was very well-known as a performer and had appeared in another Indigenous musical Bran Nue Day (2010). Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens are both trained actors who made their screen debuts in The Sapphires.

  • Watch, listen to and read interviews given by the stars of The Sapphires and consider their contribution to the success of the film.
  • Compare the design of the original US DVD cover with the Australian DVD cover. Why do you think the US design caused controversy? What is it communicating and why is this a problem? Here the real Sapphires express their displeasure.
SAPPHIRES dvd cover

Collaboration

Filmmaking is a highly collaborative art form. The Sapphires was Wayne Blair’s first feature film production as a director and he worked in collaboration with the rest of the team including cinematographer, Warwick Thornton, who is himself a renowned director.

  • Wayne Blair has worked extensively as an actor. How do you think this might influence his approach to directing?
  • List the creative and technical roles integral to the success of a film. (You can use the IMDB website as a resource)
  • Focus on one of these roles, find out what it involves and describe the contribution of this individual or team to the film.
  • In this review, Fiona Williams briefly acknowledges the work of some of the key members of the team involved in The Sapphires: ‘Good times rule in Wayne Blair’s soulful adaptation’ . Write a review of The Sapphires that acknowledges the contribution of some of the filmmaking team that you feel made a particularly effective contribution.

The supervising sound editor for The Sapphires was Andrew Plain who recorded up to 70 different tracks for each song, using both modern and 1960s microphones. These were then mixed down to 12 tracks and played back to the actors on set for them to sing along with during filming.

“They weren’t allowed to mime, because miming looks quite different as throat muscles move quite differently,” Plains says. “Then all of that, the stuff that was sung on set and all the original tracks were given back to us” (From ‘A Decade of Soul’, Inside Film, 28 151, February-March 2013).

Does this inside information about the recording and design of the music add to your appreciation of the film? Explain.

Reading the film

The Sapphires is a rich film text, exploring a range of topics, events and themes. It is driven by a rapidly paced narrative and rewards close analysis.

  • Make a list of key scenes or sequences in The Sapphires. Divide into groups, with each group focusing on a different scene. Use the "Reading The Sapphires" worksheet (See downloadable pdf below) to help focus group discussion.
  • As a class, watch each of the chosen scenes, listen to the observations and conclusions reached by the respective groups and then share ideas as a class.
  • Now that you have had a chance to focus on close analysis techniques, choose a scene and create a written response. As well as exploring the film language used, explain how the scene relates to the film narrative as a whole.

Characterisation

A character mapping exercise can help us dig deep into the character development process.

Divide into groups with each group focusing on a particular character or character-grouping.
Consider:

  • Appearance/physical attributes: How is the character presented visually via facial look, body shape, costuming? What does it suggest about the character?
  • Design: How does the design of the character help to achieve believability? How does design encourage the audience to feel empathy for the character?
  • Voice: How do the character’s words and voice (tone, infliction, and timbre) help to establish the character? What does it suggest about the character?
  • Action: How do the character’s actions and behaviours help to establish the character? What other personal traits are evident? Describe the character’s motivations, fears and desires.
  • Role: How does the character relate to the other main character or to other characters? What effects does the character’s behaviour have? Describe the character’s role in the overall storyline.
  • Framing: Where is the character placed in the frame? What else is placed in the frame with the character? What shot types and angles are used?

Use the character-mapping sheet to guide discussion and to take notes. (See downloadable pdf below)

  • Share discoveries as a class. Discuss and debate the observations made and the conclusions drawn.