DEBORAH Mailman marks the beginning and the end of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. She is one of the stars of The Sapphires, the movie that opens the festival tonight, and she’s also in the closing-night feature, Mental, the reunion of the Muriel’s Wedding team of Toni Collette and director P. J. Hogan.

The Sapphires, based on a true story, is set in the 1960s. It is about four indigenous women who formed a singing group and found their way to Vietnam, performing for the troops.

It was originally a play written by Tony Briggs, who based his story on his mother’s experiences. Mailman was in the first stage production in 2004, although she played a different role. On stage, she was Cynthia, the most irrepressible of the four; in the film she’s Gail, the eldest, who watches protectively over the others.

Wayne Blair, the movie’s director, also goes back to the beginning of The Sapphires; he played opposite Mailman in the stage show.

”It was one of the most challenging productions I’d ever done,” she recalls. ”But every night, without fail, there was such a buzz when we came off.”

For the film, the cast and crew headed to Vietnam. ”It was wonderful we were able to go there. We had so many different locations. It’s a period drama; we were going from country Victoria to Saigon – it’s a huge challenge.” It was, she says, a tight budget. ”But what’s great about Australian crews and creatives is that they know how to work that way.”

The Sapphires had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, in an out of-competition screening, an experience whose significance Mailman says she didn’t fully understand until she returned home.

The Sapphires is one of nine films eligible for The Age Critics Award, judged by Age reviewers, which goes to the best Australian feature in the festival.

The Age is a festival sponsor.

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