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Aboriginal voices silence Vietnamese war stories


The Sapphires (PG). Director: Wayne Blair. Starring: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens. Miranda Tapsell. 99 minutes

Agent Orange victim, photo at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The anti-American rhetoric is direct and effective, the phrase AMERICAN WAR OF AGGRESSION a recurring, pulsating slur.

Yet who would deny it? Certainly not me, as I stand in the museum and face this photographic account of Vietnamese suffering. Images of the dead women and children of massacred My Lai. Of American soldiers mooning over decapitated Viet Cong, or holding up a savagely disembodied limb like a trophy. Of the bearers of generational birth defects, yet to be compensated for the hereditary effects of American chemical warfare.

There is an American expat in our tour group, and I ask her how the rhetoric makes her feel. It does irk her — 'But who could blame them?'

Who indeed. Just days previous we stood at the Citadel in Hue, within which lies the bones of the majestic Imperial City that was all but obliterated by US bombs following a Communist takeover of the city. Likewise the ruined temples of My Son, near Hoi An, where only a small portion of the centuries old Hindu domes of the Champa kingdom survived the bombing assault of an overzealous US military trying to flush out elusive Viet Cong.

The museum in Ho Chi Minh City (still Saigon to the locals) is now known rather euphemistically as the War Remnants Museum. Its previous name, the Museum of American War Crimes, was less politic, but more suited to the resentful mood inside. Under the circumstances, who could begrudge the Vietnamese their resentment?

There are at least two versions of any war, depending which side of the ideological line you sit. This is their version. It's a compelling one.

 This is a somewhat heavy way for me to introduce this reflection on what is really a very light film. But it is pertinent. The Sapphires takes place during the Vietnam War, and in large part within Vietnam itself. Yet it doesn't contain a single Vietnamese character or for the most part represent the Vietnamese perspective.

This is a problem of many war films, which tend to marginalise 'the enemy' in order to wed your sympathy to the main (familiar) characters. But it is a particular problem for The Sapphires, in which the transcending of social margins by oppressed groups is a key theme.

The film follows a group of Aboriginal women who become entertainers for African American troops in Vietnam. They abandon the 'white' country and western music on which they have been weaned, and instead embrace 'black' soul music. They come of age as they more fully embody their 'blackness'.

Its treatment of this theme is multi-pronged. It lampoons racism in rural Australia when, early in the film, three of the girls (Mailman, Tapsell and Mauboy) compete in a country pub talent quest against a gaggle of ruthlessly caricatured, talentless hicks.

In a more biting piece of satire (with a nod, perhaps, to John Waters) it reduces Australia's 1960s white urban culture — a world in which their fourth, fair-skinned friend Kay (Sebbens) has found herself — to little more than a Tupperware party; Kay escapes this plastic world by re-embracing her Aboriginal roots.

There is a tonal unevenness to all of this. The film's hammy comedy, show-stopping musical numbers and more earnest aspects just don't quite gel. O'Dowd (AKA that Irish guy from Bridesmaids) puts his trademark goofycute shtick to good effect as the alcoholic band-manager with a heart of gold, but the film's dramatisation of the Stolen Generations doesn't quite come off.

Its juxtaposition of the experiences of Aboriginal Australians with the civil rights movement in the US, on the other hand, is more poignant; aligning the plights of these different 'black' peoples.

It is unfortunate and more than a little bit ironic that amid all of this the Vietnamese themselves are all but sidelined. Even more so as the film progresses and the girls' proximity to military activity becomes increasingly dangerous. The Vietnamese here are merely the invisible enemy responsible for the bomb blasts and bullets that threaten the wellbeing of our heroes. They are 'other', and they are silent.

True, this is not their story. And it must be acknowledged that the museum in Saigon could be said to marginalise US voices in the same way. But for western visitors, the museum both shames and illuminates. The Sapphires seeks mainly to entertain, and in so doing it largely loses sight of its larger cultural responsibilities.

I say largely, because The Sapphires does offer one bravura nod to the Vietnamese story. Driving across country to their next gig, the girls are stopped by a troop of Viet Cong. Terrified, they plead for their lives, but are silenced by a yell. Then, in a moment of insight, Kay addresses the soldiers in language. She identifies her Aboriginal heritage and asks if, respectfully, she and her friends may pass across their land. It works: they are allowed to pass. It is a moment of profound solidarity between one invaded people and another.

It is vitally important, but all too fleeting. Once the girls pass, the Vietnamese soldiers dissolve back into the shadowy jungle from which they appeared. 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. Image: Agent Orange victim, photo at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Sapphires, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, War Remnants Museum



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Existing comments

I've seen the trailer to "The Sapphires" and so I'm keen to see this film (Saturday arvo in fact). "The Sapphires seeks mainly to entertain, and in so doing it largely loses sight of its larger cultural responsibilities" worried me a little Tim. Do all films about Aboriginal people have to be heavy? I'm hoping the film's lightness will carry it's message through.

Pam | 09 August 2012  

Thank you for this helpful juxtaposition of personal experience/insights and the use of film to hide and/or humanise 'the other'. Film has often born an uneasy relationship to history and race; witness propagandistic milestones such as D.W. Griffiths's KKK-lovin' 1915 'The Birth of a Nation', or Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 'Triumph of the Will'. Perhaps it comes down to the screenwriter and/or director's intent and capacity (?). Vietnam has been a particular subject of US filmmakers' introspection and hubris, but has perhaps never fully exorcised or owned up to the rape of nations and the post-US defeat posturing. Muhammed Ali's response still runs true (though, ironically,largely for non-Americans); the champ famously denounced the Vietnam War as a situation where 'the white man sent the black man to kill the yellow man'. This piece has inspired me to go and see 'The Sapphires'.

Barry G | 09 August 2012  

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