If you didn’t catch The Sapphires while it played at the Mumbai Film Festival, you definitely missed one of the most likable, charming and heartwarming movies of the year. Australian actor-director Wayne Blair’s first full length feature film, The Sapphires is about four talented indigenous Australian girls who form a music group and travel to Vietnam to sing for troops in the year 1968, when racism was still rampant in Australia.
In an exclusive interview, Wayne tells us about dealing with racism through comedy, the responsibility as an indigenous Australian and why movies about fractured souls appeal to him:
You’ve dealt with the sensitive issue of racism in The Sapphires. In 1968, racism was still quite rampant around the world, but you still hear about it in Australia today. How did you go about tackling this in the film today?
You know, tackling the subject of racism was sort of the mission statement of the two writers, Tonny Briggs and Keith Thompson. As you said, racism still resonates in Australia today as it did in 1968. It is just inherent in the society that we live in Australia, and it sort of rears its ugly head when you least expect. So, it is a truth and we just wanted to talk about the truth and remind our own country of where we stand in 2012, you know.
We could have gone much harder in dealing with this theme but we chose to deal with it through comedy because I suppose Tony Keith wanted some balance, some love and some joy in the film. Also, because while we wanted the film to resonate with the non-indigenous people who come to watch it, we wanted to do it in a way that it is a subtle way rather than in a weighty or hard-hitting way. Subtlety has an undertone of humanity and with that humanity comedy, which is great medicine, you know. We just wanted to tell a beautiful story that when you can walk away from it, you have a little tear and a little laugh and it makes you feel human again.
We’ve not seen too much of the indigenous Australian community on film. Since you are indigenous too, what were the challenges for you in trying to represent the community respectfully?
We just wanted to show that that aboriginal people did exist in the world back then too, and whether it was through soul music or the Vietnam war, we did participate. And that all we’ve wanted in the end is just love, respect and most importantly, to be considered equal. While everyone knows about the civil rights movement in America at the time this story takes place, there was a civil rights movement in Australia that mirrored that. That even in Australia aboriginal people did exist and they were fighting for the same rights as the non-aboriginal people, and perhaps still continue to do that.
Being indigenous, you just have a responsibility to your own stories. Because if you don’t tell them, who else is going to? Perhaps if a non-indigenous person may have directed the film, he may not have treated it the same way as I did. For example, if I walk into in an Indian restaurant and I see Italian people serving it, it would make me question it, you know. The food may still probably be good but there’s something about the authenticity if it came from the real people. So I have this responsibility, and I understand that, and I will continue to deal with this subject, because sometimes, you have to leave ego and ambition at the door.
You weren’t looking to make your debut with The Sapphires, and the movie just happened to you. Is it the kind of movie you always wanted to debut with?
No, I actually had another film that I was trying to debut with for the last three-four years, but that didn’t work out. But when The Sapphires came on to my table, its premise was so strong that I just had no choice but to partake in this adventure. It was one of those things when I was in the right place at the right time. It just felt right, you know. I didn’t really weigh the pros and cons or strengths and weaknesses as one really should do in these big things in life. And when Chris O’Dowd and Deborah Mailman, two actors who have a warm heart and a generosity of spirit, came on board, I knew I couldn’t have been involved in a better first movie.