The Sapphires: a glimpse of Australia’s Stolen Generations

The Sapphires (2012). Directed by Wayne Blair, written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, based on the 2004 stage play of the same name.

The Sapphires is a 2012 musical comedy-drama that tells the story of an Aboriginal all-girl group in 1960’s New South Wales. Growing up on a reserve in Western Australia, sisters Gail, Julie and Cynthia dream of becoming singers. After taking part in a local talent contest they convince Irish immigrant Dave Lovelace, an out-of-work musician and talent scout, to become their manager. After reuniting with their estranged cousin Kay, the group wins the chance to perform for US troops in Vietnam.

The Sapphires (2012) left to right – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) [Image: usatoday.com]

Loosely based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Tony Briggs’ mother and relatives, The Sapphires offers a funny and touching exploration of race, identity and family in 1960’s Australia. Although primarily a light-hearted, feel-good film, The Sapphires explores a dark aspect of twentieth-century Australian history. The marginalisation of Indigenous Australians is central to the film’s plot and themes. The film is particularly concerned with the experiences and lasting trauma of the Stolen Generations, an issue that is explored through the character of Kay (played by Shari Sebbens).

The term Stolen Generations refers to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities as a result of state and federal government policies. The Healing Foundation, an organisation that provides “a platform to amplify the voices and lived experiences of Stolen Generation survivors and their families”, estimates that as many as one in three Indigenous children were taken from their families between 1910 and the early 1970s (healingfoundation.org.au). In ‘A guide to Australia’s Stolen Generations’, Jen Korff outlines how this policy mainly targeted mixed-race or light-skinned Indigenous children and was motivated by the belief that these children should be separated from their communities in order to prepare them to fit into ‘mainstream’ (white) society. Members of the Stolen Generations were not only removed from their families but also taught to reject their heritage. While some children were adopted or fostered by white families, many were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect were common (australianstogether.org.au). These policies had a devastating effect on these children and their families, causing untold psychological and physical suffering to the individuals involved, as well as leading to the severing of familial and cultural ties.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: screenaustralia.gov.au]

As a light-skinned Aboriginal child, Kay was taken from the family home by government services and placed in an institution. By the time the audience meets the adult Kay she has become almost completely estranged from her relatives. Her experiences in government care, as well as the death of her mother, have effectively severed any ties she had with her family. Her experiences during this time have clearly had an impact on not only her relationship with her family and community but also her own psychological state and attitude to her race and heritage.

Although the film is vague about where Kay spent the years of her separation, it is apparent that she spent most of her childhood in some sort of government institution. One example of these institutions was the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in New South Wales. Girls at Cootamundra were not permitted to maintain contact with their families and the parents of these children were often unable to gain access to them until they turned eighteen (Kovacic). The main aim of institutions like Cootamundra was to prepare its wards for careers as domestic servants in the households of white Australian citizens. As a light-skinned Aboriginal child, Kay was removed from her family home at a young age to be educated in ‘white’ manners. A direct consequence of this ‘education’ was that it often instilled a sense of self-loathing and shame in the young people placed in these institutions, encouraging them to reject their own heritage and families.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: acmi.net.au]

When the audience meets Kay in 1968 she is in her early twenties and living in Melbourne. In her first scene, the adult Kay’s physical appearance and demeanour give a clear indication as to her psychological state and relationship to her heritage. She appears to be wearing whitening make-up and seems to be attempting to dress like a middle-class white woman. When we are introduced to the adult Kay she is serving tea at a Tupperware party and is surrounded exclusively by white women. We learn that she is working as a hospital cleaner and has had little contact with her family since her removal from the family home.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: avxhm.com]

Kay’s journey as a character is tied to her attempts to reconnect with the family and community she had been taught to reject. Clearly shaken when her cousins arrive on her doorstep, Kay initially rejects their offer to join the band. She later has a change of heart and decides to join them on the tour. During her time with the band she is forced to confront the trauma she faced as a child, and re-evaluate her own attitude to her race and identity. It is clear how ingrained the racist attitudes she was exposed to as a young child have become in her. Her conflict with Gail (played by Deborah Mailman) is tied to a particular incident that occurred when she briefly visited the family home during her teenage years. When Kay was allowed to attend her mother’s funeral she was openly hostile and critical of her family, expressing a dismissive and racist attitude towards them. This causes a long term conflict with Gail, who is deeply resentful when Kay joins the band. The two come into conflict throughout the film, with Gail labelling Kay a ‘gubba’, a term for a white person. As the band grows in popularity, and Kay begins a romantic relationship with an African-American soldier, Gail’s hostility towards her cousin worsens.

Gail is resentful that Kay only seems to embrace her race and culture when it is beneficial for her. She fails to understand how Kay’s feelings about her identity have become so complex due to her experience of being taken from her family and community at such a young age. Gail’s conflict with Kay is partly motivated by her own sense of guilt. As the eldest cousin, Gail had felt responsible for Kay. From the day Kay was taken away, Gail has lived with the guilt of being unable to protect her younger cousin. Kay on the other hand is deeply affected by her experiences and has trouble reconnecting with her family and her racial identity. As an adult, she is still struggling with the trauma of being taken from her family and being raised in an environment where she was made to feel ashamed of her heritage. However, it is clear that despite her experiences, Kay still has a deep connection to her roots and culture. In one key scene, Dave and the band are stopped by Vietnamese soldiers on an isolated road. Seeing the potential danger, Kay instinctively begins speaking in her tribe’s Yorta Yorta language in an attempt to win the soldiers sympathy and signal that they do not pose a threat to them. This gesture works, with the Vietnamese soldiers allowing the group to pass safely.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: youtube.com]

When working on The Sapphires, screenwriter Tony Briggs was initially interested in exploring the experiences of his mother and relatives during their time as a band. However, he felt that he could not write about this time period without exploring the intense generational trauma his family was dealing with. The characters in The Sapphires are not directly based on real people but are rather composites of the personalities and experiences of various family members. The family’s connection to the Stolen Generations came from the experiences of Briggs’ mother Laurel Robinson, who saw three of her siblings removed from the family home. Robinson was three at the time her siblings were taken, not seeing them again until she was a teenager. Although she was allowed to remain with her family, Laurel still faced discrimination and racism throughout her childhood, which prompted her to leave school at the age of fifteen. After this she was sent to Melbourne to live with relatives, leading to the formation of the band that would become known as The Sapphires, which was made up of Robinson, her sister Lois Peeler, and cousins Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers. Speaking of the influence his family history had on the writing of the play, and later the movie, Briggs said:

“I really started writing the story of The Sapphires when I was having conversations with mum… I noticed that she would be mentioning Vietnam a lot… 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” (Interview excerpt quoted by acmi.net.au).

The Sapphires (2012) {Image: indiewire.com]

The opening scenes of the film gives the audience a sense of the marginalisation of Indigenous peoples in mid-twentieth century Australian society. When we are introduced to the girls and their family, they are living on a reserve in rural Australia with little access to basic facilities like running hot water and public transport. They are shown to be estranged from Australian life, facing racism on a daily basis. In the opening scenes, Cynthia and Gail attempt to hitchhike to the local town to take part in a talent contest but are ignored by passing motorists. When they reach the venue where the contest is taking place they are treated with contempt by the bar owner and the other patrons. Despite being the far superior musical act in the competition, they lose to a white contestant.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: imdb.com]

The Sapphires is set during a pivotal time in Australian history. By the early sixties, Indigenous Australians were making an organised effort to push for civil rights. The film opens with a montage of news clips that place the film in the context of the social and political upheaval of the time. It intercuts images of Aboriginal protests over Land Rights with clips of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, featuring recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali speaking, while also showing footage of the rapidly escalating situation in Vietnam. Though not an overtly political film, the characters are deeply affected by the world events taking place in 1968, with the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and the trauma and turmoil of the Vietnam War playing a key role in the film’s plot. While the girls enjoy performing in Saigon and mingling with the American soldiers stationed there, they are also confronted by the devastation of the conflict, at one point finding themselves in the middle of a nighttime air raid. Interestingly, of the real-life group that inspired the band in the film, only two of the four members actually travelled to Vietnam. The other two members refused to go as they were active participants in the anti-war movement.

The Sapphires (2012) Gail, Kay, Julie and Cynthia as children [Image: first5minutes.tumblr.com]

The film’s music serves as not only entertainment but is also linked to the characters emotional journeys as well as the story’s themes. According to the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), The Sapphires can be described as a ‘jukebox musical’ (acmi.net.au). This means that the soundtrack is not made up of original songs, but instead consists of already released music by a variety of artists. The film’s music is drawn from a blend of country and western, soul and traditional Aboriginal music. In the story, music is used as an important source of connection and emotional expression for the characters. As children, the girls had entertained their community by putting on shows where they perform traditional Aboriginal songs like ‘Ngarra Burra Ferra’. Several times during the film music is used as a way for the characters to communicate with each other during times of conflict and grief. One example is when Cynthia, Julie and Gail sing ‘Yellow Bird’ with their mother after an argument. Dave’s most significant contribution to the band is that he encourages them to focus on soul music rather than the country and western tunes they had previously preferred. This not only gave the girls a more lively catalogue of music to draw from during their performances but also helped connect them to the struggles faced by their community. As soul music is traditionally associated with African American culture, the girls’ decision to focus on this genre creates a clear link in the story between the struggles of Aboriginal Australians and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: cinemachaat.com]

At its core, The Sapphires is a film about family and the devastation caused when those family ties are severed. Ultimately, The Sapphires ends on a high note with Kay and Gail reconciling and all the girls returning to the family home. Kay has come to fully embrace her home and heritage, receiving a blessing from a family elder. Although Kay’s story has a happy ending, many of the people affected by the experiences of the Stolen Generations were not able to reconnect with their heritage. Their experiences caused lasting damage to their lives and their relationship with their families and communities.

The Sapphires (2012) [Image: blu-ray.com]

Credit for cover photo to agreatmovieblog.wordpress.com.

Sources

Bye, Susan. “The Sapphires Education Resource: Australian Centre for the Moving Image.” ACMI. https://2015.acmi.net.au/media/2053151/the-sapphires-education-resource.pdf. Accessed 3 October 2020.

Korff, Jens. “A guide to Australia’s Stolen Generations.” Creative Spirits, 6 September 2020. https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations. Accessed 3 October 2020.

Kovacic, Leonarda. “Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls (1911 – 1986).” The Australian Women’s Register, 28 May 2004. http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0979b.htm. Accessed 4 October 2020.

“Study Guide: The Sapphires.” ACMI. https://www.acmi.net.au/education/school-program-and-resources/study-guide-sapphires/. Accessed 26 December 2021.

‘The Stolen Generations’. Australians Together. https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/stolen-generations#stolengenref3. Accessed 1 May 2021.

 “Today Tonight – The Real Sapphires (2012).” Posted by MOOOV, 5 February 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9fpglrWzQ0. Accessed 3 October 2020.

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