Rating: 5 / 5
Director Paul Williams’ documentary, Gurrumul, is a triumph—a work of love and art.
Many may be unaware of the work, and international success, of the late Dr G. Yunupingu, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. This is changing.
Readers might be aware that there are cultural taboos around the naming and depicting of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But Gurrumul is a film that totally revolves around that past person and his achingly pure voice.
In this case, the tribal elders of Gurrumul’s home in Elcho Island (in far North East Arnhem Land), Gumatj and Gälpu clan leaders, however, have made a rare exception to their cultural taboo—note the film still carries a warning for First Nations peoples that this is occurring.
We are told that the exception was made by Gurrumul’s Aunty Susan Dhangal Gurriwiwwi (a prominent narrative voice), in the hope that “through closing their eyes and opening their hearts” filmgoers will “see him clear” and know the joy of his music and mission.
Who was Gurrumul? A sublimely gifted songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. A big, sick man, a man born blind, living with liver and kidney disease. A soul captured in grief and transcendence, singing in sorrow, fear and joy and aspiring to bridge two cultures.
Gurrumul was a son, relative, leader, rebel, and—captured in his most raw moments—we see he is a Yolngu man.
Gurrumul’s knowledge of English was as a fifth language, hence his lyrical eloquence is endearing and impressive. His use of conversational silence as a shield, and perhaps as a spear, speaks volumes.
The film traces the colours of Gurrumul’s home, paying homage to tribal dances and songs. It caresses the faces of his family and friends. Clever, dislocating use of pitch blackness also puts the filmgoer into Gurrumul’s world and this effect is used tellingly.
In dialogue with Gurrumul’s musical collaborator and balanda (Western) brother, Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul’s artistic voice comes through clearly.
Sorrow, anxious hope, and something akin to spiritual awe are responses that may come to you as you watch and listen. Tears, unbidden, may fall as he sings.
Clarity eludes us, though, as to the exact nature of pressures on Gurrumul’s work as a preserver of his people’s songlines and a bridger of Western expectations and familial obligations. That’s true also of Gurrumul’s passing. His quiet genius and occasional outbursts of laughter reveal who he was—and who he may still yet become.
“Those tears in your eyes,” Aunty Susan says, “those tears are telling you [that] you understand his songs…he is singing to touch your heart and show who he is to the world.”
Highlight: Hearing and seeing Gurrumul mid-song
Red flag: None