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A Conversation with Shari Sebbens of 'The Sapphires'

An interview with Shari Sebbens, an actress in the Australian film 'The Sapphires'
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In the Australian hit movie The Sapphires, Shari Sebbens plays Kay, a “white-looking” Aboriginal girl who is stolen from her family to live with Australians who are not indigenous to the country. Stripped from her family and friends, Kay reunites with her cousins to join a Supremes-style R&B girl group that tours Vietnam and entertains American troops during the war. Based on a true story, The Sapphires expresses hope, joy, wonder, and the growing empowerment of four fierce Aboriginal women who seek opportunity despite the barriers of their dispossession. She recently spoke with ICTMN about the film and a number of related cultural issues: inter-racial relationships, the erasure of Indigenous struggles from the classroom, Idle No More, and the enduring influence of Tupac. (Click here to read a review of the film.)

You were born and raised in Australia?

Yes, in Darwin, the same city as Miranda [Tapsell, who plays Cynthia] and Jess [Jessica Mauboy, who plays Julie]. So, the three of us grew up in the same hometown.

Did you grow up knowing each other?

We knew of each other. I went to high school with Jessica’s sister. Miranda’s mom and my mom worked together. Our families have all had connections. We just never really met each other…Miranda and I went to the same drama school, NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art], in Sydney, so we met there, and we were besties before we started filming Sapphires, and then we all came together on that little project.

Did you grow up in a city, or did you grow up in a more rural town?

It depends who you’re talking to. Darwin people say it’s a city. City people say, ‘No, it’s a small town.’ It’s kind of the best place in Australia, I think. It’s not a huge city, with a population of 200,000 or something. It’s one of the few places in Australia that has a really high percentage of Indigenous Australians living in the city. So, for me, it’s a really multicultural, amazing town to grow up.

In the schools that you attended prior to the two drama schools, were you in integrated schools, or were the schools mostly segregated?

Ahhh, definitely integrated. That’s the beautiful thing about Darwin. My boyfriend, who is a white boy, people meet him, and he’s got this Darwin accent, and people go, “Oh, are you indigenous? Are you a Black fella?” And he’s like, “Naw, naw.” But he sounds like he is to city people.

I was shocked when I moved to Sydney in 2007, one of my classmates at NIDA said, “Oh, you’re the first Aboriginal person I’ve met.” And I just could not get my head around that, because, in Darwin, you walk down the street, and every second or third person is Indigenous, or Asian, or Greek. It’s one of the few examples I’ve seen of multiculturalism, not meaning many cultures, but actually living together and functioning together, as a really wonderful, amazing, organism.

Your love interest in the film, and those of the other women, are African American GIs serving in Vietnam, and of course the Sapphires were in the mold of the Supremes and other black girl groups of the day. Do you indigenous Australians identify with African Americans musically? Growing up, did you guys listen to Hip Hop, Soul, R&B?

You know, it is so massive for indigenous Australian mob. Hip Hop and R&B, Motown -- you go to Darwin today, and 15 year olds are still tagging, like, “Tupac Rules” and stuff on bus stops. It’s really funny because, I got older, and I realized that, historically, we have more in common with First Nation or American Indian mob -- with what’s happened in history.

America saturates our screens and our airwaves, as it does the rest of the world, and I think that for a little black kid, an indigenous kid, in Australia to turn on the television and see a black man singing or a black woman singing on a TV show -- we take that in, definitely. We are extremely influenced. I mean, Jessica’s an R&B girl through and through. That’s what been great about all this with the film -- I’m so excited about her next album, because it’s gonna be total R&B. The black fellas over there, the Indigenous Australians, they definitely dig it. White Australians, not so much.

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What about the election of President Obama?

People were just excited. I remember when he first got elected, thinking, even in Alice Springs, some central, remote desert, some kid is gonna see this man on screen who is the President of the United States, and his skin is the same color. That’s significant, whatever your political beliefs are. We’ve just had our first Indigenous head of state introduced into Parliament in Australia. The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory has now been sworn in, an Indigenous fella, so that’s really exciting for us.

Would you say you grew up, in your education, in school, or just sort of generally, with an awareness of Indigenous rights and Indigenous issues on a global level?

It’s something you have to come to as an adult. Funny enough, even though we’re in Australia, we learn a lot about America. We study books about slavery and things like that. When I was in high school, we didn’t do anything like that about indigenous Australian history.

In Legal Studies we learned what terra nullius was and the Native Title Act – for like a week. Yet we spent a whole term watching Roots and analyzing – which is amazing, and all that amazing writing, but globally I think we’re just getting to the stage. I think social media has had a huge impact with this generation, things like Idle No More. Stuff like that is all over Twitter. I’ve got a friend, who’s a young activist in Sydney, and she’s got a pen pal in Canada. And they’re swapping Idle No More stickers from Canada to Australia and all this amazing stuff. So I think, earlier on, it was just a thing of being focused on our own world and our own struggles and issues as Indigenous Australians. But now, because of the Internet and because social media, it’s so much easier to understand what’s happening globally, and how you can fit into that, and how you can learn from other mob. So, that’s what’s happening.

Aboriginals were kept on what were called “missions” – similar to Indian reservations. Is mission life accurately portrayed in the film?

Yeah -- because the film is so much Tony’s [Tony Briggs, screenwriter] memories of childhood, Tony’s mother’s memories of their childhood and his aunties’ memories. I know a few people in Australia, white people, were like, “Oh, they’ve portrayed mission life as this happy, bright, chirpy existence.” And, it’s like, “You know what? You inflicted the suffering upon us. We found the joy and the laughter through that, through family." And that’s what those scenes are. That’s what the mission life is. No one is denying that what’s going on inside that house is a mother who’s lost her child, but what Indigenous people have done so well is cling together and stay strong in their communities and survive through laughter and family connection. So, in that sense, it’s a very accurate depiction.

But a surprising one, in some ways?

Yeah. There is an expectation that any story about us has to show people who are just constantly beaten down. And if we had done a film that was that side of that story, I don’t think a lot of Australia would have sat up and paid attention the way they have responded to this film.

Why not?

Because people feel like they’ve heard it before. I think they feel like, “We know that story. We watched Rabbit Proof Fence or we watched Samson and Delilah. We get it guys.” Which is a really crappy attitude to have. They’re forgetting that there’s hundreds of thousands of stories to tell. Australian television and film needs to be braver and take a big step in their representation of real Australia.

We’re at a stage in Australia where we have Indigenous writers. We’ve got Indigenous producers, Indigenous directors, Indigenous actors. It’s not the white person’s take on the Indigenous story – that’s the beautiful thing about this film, and why it’s done so well. It’s completely the Indigenous person’s story, and therefore it becomes A Story, for anyone. And I think that’s why audiences can connect with it more, because we’re not going, “OK, now we’re telling you an Indigenous story.” We’re just telling you a story, about our family.

How have the Aboriginal people received the film?

They have embraced it so much – and we knew they would. When I first read the script, I was just on the bed in tears, from laughter, from sadness. I walked out to my mom, and I was like, “Mom. You’ve got to read this script.” We all knew. Tony knew when he was writing it, what he was on to. And Wayne [Blair, director]. We knew instantly in our hearts that our mob would respond to it and love it. And the beautiful surprise has been how the world has responded to it.