Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Sapphires film review: an expression of ubuntu theology

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Here is the review for October.

The Sapphires
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

“Without me, there’s no you.”

1968. The year I was born. The year that Martin Luther King was shot. The year four indigenous Aboriginal sisters, from rural Australia, found themselves in the midst of Vietnam.

Based on a true story, “The Sapphires” is an endearing mix of comedy, song and romance. In response to a newspaper advertisement, aided by out of luck Irish DJ Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) – sing their way into a war. Travelling through Vietnam, entertaining American soldiers, they discover love and sorrow, dreams and reality.

An indigenous movie demanded an indigenous cast, requiring a scouring through Aboriginal communities around Australia. It is a credit to the emerging indigenous film industry in Australia to find actors as talented as Deborah Mailman. With 11 movies in 2011 and 15 in 2010, it suggests a community both creative and healthy. (In the period 1970-1979, there were 9 indigenous movies, compared with 135 in the period 2000-2009.*) (For more graphs go here).

Indigenous film or films made by indigenous film makers – Australia decadal

The use of black and white archival future – of Martin Luther King, of indigenous Australian campsites – skillfully adds a historical layer to the song and soul. Issues of ethical significance are raised, without the storyline being consumed.

“The Sapphires” began life as a stage musical. Indigenous writer Tony Brigg’s then crafted the song and dance genre for the big screen. He drew on the lives of his mother and three aunts, their love of song which led to and their work in Vietnam in the late 1960s. All four remain alive today, working for health among their indigenous communities.

Kiwi audiences will see similarities with the art of Maori comedian, Billy T James. Both employ the genre of musical comedy. Both share a public story of beginnings in Vietnam and use humour to gently poke at issues ranging from racism to indigenous experience.

Christian audiences will see similarities with the Biblical story of Ruth. First in the sentiments of the handwritten marriage proposal and the display of a sacrificial love willing to embrace “Your people as my people.” Second, in the indigenous smoking experience in which a mother welcomes a long lost daughter, stolen by officials enacting the White Australia policy of the 1950s. It is these scenes that give this movie a real power, the human tragedy made more poignant by the backdrop, including the death of Martin Luther King.

“The Sapphires” offers a poignant reminder of the social, ethical and communal heart of God, through the sacrificial actions of kinsman redeemers who open the way for redemption in community. This is seen most clearly in the Christian tradition through “ubuntu” theology, the concept made famous by Desmond Tutu in which “I am because we are.” The reminder that in God, and thus among God’s people, that indeed “Without me, there’s no you.”


Posted by steve at 08:54 AM

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