Jewels in the festival crown

Wayne Blair seems stunned by the response to his first film before it has even opened.

The director of the warm-hearted Australian musical, about four young Aboriginal women who become Australia's version of the Supremes in the 1960s, stood with his cast during a sustained standing ovation at the world premiere at Cannes in May.

As well as selling to legendary Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein for international distribution, The Sapphires was selected to open the Melbourne International Film Festival. Then came another honour with selection for next month's Toronto International Film Festival.

All that has created high hopes for the film's release next week, especially given the box-office success of Bran Nue Dae two years ago.

Well known as an actor and director in theatre and TV, the self-effacing Blair says there were moments at Cannes when he had to remind himself to ''just breathe, just breathe'' because of all the attention. ''It was unexpected,'' he says of the acclaim. ''Just walking up that red carpet was pretty surreal. They treat you like you're very special.''

The Sapphires, which stars Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman and Chris O'Dowd from Bridesmaids, follows the soul group from outback Australia to the Vietnam War, where they entertain the troops. It is based on Tony Briggs's hit play that was, in turn, inspired by his mother's singing career in the 1960s.

Blair was acting in the stage musical when Briggs, who had been flooded with interest from producers about its potential for film, asked him to direct.

It took five years of work on the script, casting and financing before The Sapphires reached production.

''We fleshed it out a great deal - the journey of the four girls,'' Blair says. ''In the stage show, they were all sisters. In the film, there are three sisters and one cousin … and we just wanted to add a bit more weight to it.''

Blair has an unusual background for a filmmaker - growing up in Rockhampton, he was more interested in sport than anything creative. After he finished a marketing degree, topping a couple of drama courses, he came to Sydney to play rugby league for the Canterbury Bulldogs under-21s side while working at the Australian Tourist Commission. ''But drama stayed with me,'' he says.

When he went back to Rockhampton, Blair danced with an indigenous troupe at the Dreamtime Cultural Centre for a year while working at Video Ezy and Sizzler.

It wasn't until after he had done a three-year acting course at Queensland University of Technology that he started to land acting jobs. Then to get into another course for first-time indigenous filmmakers in Sydney, he wrote the script for the first of five short films.

Blair's filmmaking talent was confirmed when The Djarn Djarns, based on his experiences dancing in Rockhampton, won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2005.

He now joins Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Mabo), Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, Toomelah) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah) among the talented indigenous directors making an impact in Australian film. So what was it like making his first feature film?

''I never expected the film to be this widely received thus far,'' Blair says. ''In pre-production, it was just scene by scene, day by day … I couldn't think too far ahead.''

Helping was a close partnership with Thornton, who shot the film.

''We just had to be very, very, very prepared,'' Blair says. ''Being the director, I didn't really have time to think. If I did, I maybe would have shot myself in the foot. But there was a responsibility for the story, there was a responsibility to meet budget, there was a responsibility to the four aunties [the real-life Sapphires]. You had so much responsibility, you just had to do it.''

It wasn't until the film was edited together that Blair realised it was working. He was pinching himself at Cannes about how well it went down. ''Hopefully The Sapphires will open up the market for those next indigenous films to come through - and the next Australian films to come through,'' he says.

THE SAPPHIRES
GENRE Comic musical based on a hit stage play.
CRITICAL BUZZ Won acclaim at Cannes as a feel-good story about young Aboriginal women who form a singing group, then head to Vietnam to entertain the troops.
STARS Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy.
DIRECTOR Wayne Blair.
RATING PG.
RELEASED Thursday.

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