Cummeragunja Mission has an esteemed place in Australian Churches of Christ history. It was the place of birth and nurture of Sir Pastor Doug Nicholls, an eminent Aboriginal reformer and church leader and, eventually, State Governor of South Australia. Cummeragunja was also a byword for the dire conditions which led to the walkout and strike that was one of several harbingers of Aboriginal activism towards fair treatment and human rights, and that thrust Pastor Doug to the fore in such matters.
The mission forms the background for the Cummeragunja Songbirds, three sisters and a cousin,who, growing up on the mission singing Country & Western, eventually find themselves as The Sapphires, singing soul and rhythm and blues to Vietnam troops. The personal struggles of relationships, institutionalised racism and the legacy of the stolen generations is gently woven into the story – but it is the exuberance of soul music that dominates – the journey from country and western “that is all about loss” to soul “that is also about loss, but more the struggle to emerge stronger”‘ (in the similar words of their manager and mentor, who is also on his own quest for meaning.)
The beauty in the strength of the dominating but vulnerable older sister, the joie de vivre of her next sibling, the defiance and masterful voice of the youngest, and the struggle to identify that marks the path of the reunited cousin makes for plenty of drama within the quartet as well as beyond. There is much in this movie to appreciate, from the sheer enjoyment of the music, to the drama of intra-family struggle, to the sheer nostalgia of re-engaging with the issues of the sixties.