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Black Chat: The Sapphires at NFSA

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The 2012 film The Sapphires tells the story of Australia’s first Aboriginal all-girl singing group, from their country and western performances in local pubs all the way to singing soul in Vietnam, as the sisters travel internationally to entertain the troops.

The Sapphires is one of Australia’s highest grossing films of all time, and while the reality behind the movie is a little different, it was based on a true story.

The real Sapphires are Naomi Mayers, Beverly Briggs, Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler (who joined for the Vietnam trip), and all cousins from the Cummeragunja area on the Murray River in Victoria. Last month, the National Film and Sound Archives held a ‘Sapphires Special’ for the regular indigenous series Black Chat, which celebrated these incredible women. Unfortunately, Naomi was unable to attend but Beverly, Laurel and Lois sat down with Black Screen coordinator Andrea Briggs (their niece!) for a Q&A in the NFSA’s theatrette.

This was clearly a special night for the NFSA.

The staff were in glittery blue dresses to match the original from the film that was on display in the foyer, along with set photos and information about the film. Throughout the evening clips from the movie were played and never before seen photos from the Sapphires’ personal collection were displayed on the big screen. There were drinks and nibbles provided and the theatrette (an excellent space events such as these) was near capacity. Black Chat is a free regular series put on by the Indigenous connection team, headed up by Peter White, and it’s a chance for all Australians to connect with indigenous culture and discuss crucial issues. The next one will be at the end of May in time for Reconciliation Week with details here if interested.

The evening was opened by Michael Lobenstein, director of the National Film and Sound Archives, who acknowledged the traditional custodians of the land in the Welcome to Country and expressed his gratitude and excitement to host the Sapphires. Peter White spoke about the Black Chat program before welcoming host Andrea Briggs, the coordinator of the NFSA’s Black Screen program that takes indigenous Australian films on the road. Her aunties’ story obviously holds a place close to Andrea’s heart and so it was only fitting that the Q&A was quite honest, emotional and, as you’d expect from the Sapphires, very entertaining.

The Sapphires’ story begins on the Cummeragunja mission when they were just little girls, and a time that Beverly, Laurel and Lois remember vividly as they reminisced with the audience about putting on concerts as fundraisers for the neighbouring farms, or just to sing for their families. Theirs was a childhood surrounded by music.

“We would sing doing the dishes, [to] get the job finished quick,” laughs Laurel.

The opening scene of the film with the young girls performing is very accurate, as their father’s truck regularly became a stage, and the washing line with blankets pegged across it became curtains. They were sort of discovered in a pub, when the girl booked to do the hula didn’t show.

“The guy said, ‘can you girls sing?’”Beverley explains. “And they liked our harmonies.”

Naomi’s engagement ring (although Laurel says they all have one now) really was the inspiration for the name of the group, The Sapphires, but it didn’t deter the hammering of racism they experienced as shown in the movie. Beverly is still angry to this day as she retells the story of a group of men who thought the girls were Hawaiian and began making slurs against Aboriginals in front of them.

“[But] we soon set them straight,” Beverley laughs. “I love telling that story.”

Beverly also spoke about the profound and tragic effect the Stolen Generation had on their families. Some of their aunts were taken as children, and their grandmother tracked each and every one of her daughters throughout. Beverly was in tears as she expressed the ways their mothers’ experiences shaped who they are today, and how the trauma and grief experienced by their families is both past and ongoing.

Unlike the movie, only sisters Laurel and Lois actually went to Vietnam, while Beverly and Naomi (also sisters) chose not to go for political reasons because as they explain “no-one really knew what they were getting into”.

“I didn’t know where it was. Did you?” asks Beverly turning to Laurel.

“No! [I] just got in the plane,” Laurel laughs.

Away from their families for three months, Andrea asks if it was dangerous and if they feared for their lives.

“Every day,” says Lois. “We really didn’t know what we were going to… we found ourselves in a war zone.”

There were bomb checks; they could even see the napalm but Lois and Laurel did their best to put it out of their mind.

“We were there to support the war effort, to boost morale,” explains Lois, so she and Laurel kept the politics separate, making sure it was an enjoyable experience for the troops and themselves.

After the movie came out Beverly says the attention on them grew.

“Everyone was looking at us—’why didn’t you tell us?’ a girl at work told the cousins,” says Lois, who was proud to be from a mission.

Andrea smiles and says how extremely proud she is of all her aunties and Beverly quickly quips.

“You’re our favourite niece,” she says to laughter and applause from the audience.

With their time in the Sapphires far behind them, all the women are still doing crucial work for indigenous Australians.

Naomi, Beverly and Laurel work at the Aboriginal Medical Centre in Sydney where Laurel, in particular, has worked on and off for 40 of the Centre’s 45 years in operation. Naomi is currently the CEO.

The Centre offers a wide range of assistance and services to the local indigenous community including mental health, dental and aged care among many others. Lois is principal of Worawa Aboriginal College in Victoria — a high school for girls from Aboriginal communities in years 7-10 from urban, regional and remote Australia. At Worawa, the curriculum is both academic and cultural, and a real family affair for the Sapphires as they have all been involved in some way or another with the programs, (more info on both these programs can be found here and here).

As the evening drew to a close, Andrea cheekily asked her aunties to sing though confessed she would ‘cop it later’.

Harmonising beautifully with a traditional song, the Sapphires were then joined onstage by Cedric Briggs — an elder in their community, a mentor to the Sapphires and Andrea’s grandfather. Cedric also sang with the Sapphires harmonising behind him, and it was simply unforgettable. Many people in the theatrette became very emotional at this point especially when Andrea shared the significance of the song.

“Pop used to sing it to me as a little girl,” she says.

An honest, raw and emotional evening, it is events like these with empowering artists such as The Sapphires that truly makes our Australian music so deep and unique.

Author’s note: A huge thanks to the National Film and Sound Archives for putting on such a special event, and to the Sapphires themselves for their honesty, talent, and amazing contribution to Australian music.

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