• Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
The documentary 'Gurrumul' about the indigenous Australian icon who touched the lives of so many people around the world through his music, is an emotional journey that should not be missed.
SBS Movies
20 Feb 2018 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2018 - 4:24 PM

"The passing of any Yolngu person is usually accompanied by strict traditional protocols which preclude the use of the deceased’s name.

"The immediate family of Gurrumul have been clear throughout the grieving process that the contribution he made and continues to make to Australian and Yolngu cultural life should not be forgotten.

"The family have given permission that following the final funeral ceremony, his name and image may once again be used publicly to ensure that his legacy will continue to inspire both his people and Australians more broadly."


Paul Williams' film Gurrumul, a testament to the life and legacy of the soulful singer and multi-instramentalist, was lauded at its international premiere on Monday night at the Berlin Film Festival, where the audience reaction was demonstrably emotional. 

During the Q and A session following the Berlin screening, a number of men and women admitted that the film brought them to tears, one woman especially reminded of her time spent in Australia long ago in the 1980s, such is the power of Gurrumul's music. 

The Hollywood Reporter critic Australian David Rooney is glowing in his review from Berlin, starting with the heading, “A profound and transporting songline.”

While he notes “the singer’s evident indifference to the standard rewards and obligations of music-industry success presents its own set of obstacles,” he praised Williams for capturing the essence of “the widely celebrated indigenous Australian musician known for soulful tenor vocals that blended his traditional cultural heritage and Yolngu language with Western folk, gospel and classical elements."

"Approaching its reclusive subject with unerring respect, the elegantly composed documentary mirrors the gentle power and ethereal hush of Gurrumul's singing. It should find a welcome home on platforms geared toward quality nonfiction features on music and indigenous cultures.”

Here are sections from the Q and A attended by Williams, producer Shannon Swan and producer and fellow musician and Gurrumul’s 'brother' - close friend and manager - Michael Hohnen. 

Question/comment: I just want to acknowledge the creative team because I sat here and pretty much cried through the entire film. I don't think I’ve ever had that viewing experience for any film ever, something like how the moderator mentioned about flying back to Australia and the music taking you to the place in your mind and in your spirit where you want to go.

I feel like this film does that in a universal way because music is that universal language. As a person of colour who is American-born, I feel like the sounds I was hearing and the language I was privileged to listen to is not just the language of Gurrumul’s culture but it's a language that I feel somehow spoke to me in a way from wherever my people come from. That’s something the film speaks about, the universality of the message of music and the connection that we all can share because we’re experiencing the gift of what that culture is, what the music is. (Audience applause)

Williams: It’s something I continually wonder about with Gurrumul’s music. One of the inspirations I had early on was to read his fan mail from all around the world. For people who were in palliative care situations the only thing that was really providing comfort was playing that first album. A teacher in France with autistic children put on that record and it would calm them down.

So there is something quite indelible about that music. What I try to do as a director is to try to approximate it visually so you get that feeling when watching the film.

Hohnen: Wherever he went and no matter who he engaged with, from Prime Ministers to Presidents through to tradesmen, any person from any walk of life he was able to emotionally touch. I was just looking up Quincy Jones’ quote and he said he’s the most unusual, emotional and musical voice he’s ever heard.

Williams: We really wanted to celebrate his culture, to use him to go through the window and look at everything he values and then maybe look at ourselves and see what we value.

Early on in the piece he made a very simple request to show his community with dignity.

We were finding with the film’s first theatrical run in Perth how people aren’t used to seeing Indigenous Australians depicted in a glorious way.

Hohnen: The Berlinale curator said this is about filmmaking. So from a practical perspective I don't know how often producers take this role, but Shannon already has a successful business and when he came to Darwin and saw how special this culture was he basically said to me, “I want to try and produce a film that shows other people around the world how special this culture is”. So we were working with a producer in a different way than I think a lot of producers would work and I really think that needs to be acknowledged.

Question: How did Gurrumul’s death affect the film?

Williams: We’d finished it three days before he died and the only thing that changed were the title cards that you see at the start of the film and we adjusted the end graphic.

Hohnen: We put the film and the album on hold because nothing was right about anything coming out so soon.

Swan: We wanted it to be a celebration. We didn't want to focus on that part, because it’s all about his music and it’s so uplifting at the end. We wanted to put the title cards at the start that explained the situation and then let the film play as it was.


Hohnen: The whole way through I’d put the audio of the film on his iPod. So he was listening back to his family members talking about how ashamed they were when he was young, to how proud they were and how he exceeded their expectations when he’d grown up. So it was an educational experience for him to go through that as well.


Williams: Some of these songs he’s singing are 10,000 or 20,000 years old. These are ancient human constructions and they've been sung for that amount of time. So the depth of this music is a remarkable thing and the genius of Gurrumul and Michael was to modernise that to put it in a way we could find it legible today.

Gurrumul  will be released by Madman in Australia on April 26. 

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