• GURRUMUL, a documentary. 2018. (Supplied)
The critically-acclaimed documentary GURRUMUL, provides insight into the life and legacy of one of Australia's greatest musicians.
By
Emily Nicol

1 May 2018 - 10:41 AM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2019 - 12:39 PM

**Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this content contains images of people who have died. 

With a voice that captured the heart of millions across the world, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu was an enigmatic talent. Blind from birth, the proud Yolngu man spoke through his music. He found purpose and meaning through songs inspired by his community and country in North East Arnhem Land. 

On 25 July 2017, Australia mourned the loss of one of its music greats. Geoffrey Gurrumul, at only 46-years-old, tragically passed away after a long battle with illness.   

A newly released documentary, GURRUMUL, carries the legacy of this celebrated and important voice, and offers a rare insight into the life of the shy musician beyond the stage and the spotlight. We see a man as he traverses two "different worlds". "One world is Balanda, the other world is Yolngu," as Gurrumul describes it.  

Filmed over the course of ten years, the documentary feature by Paul Williams gives us a window into the rich and complex Yolngu culture and ceremonial life, a world that informed the singer's music and voice. As Gurrumul lives an exciting life as a successful musician, performing for people like Barack Obama and even Queen Elizabeth II, he also experiences intense homesickness and the need to continue to learn and immerse himself in his family and traditional life. 

Beautifully narrated by his Aunty, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, we learn that Yunupingu was considered to be a messenger between the Balanda (white) world and Yolngu worlds, that the singer was Djarimirri —Child of the Rainbow—, and his destiny was to illuminate the divide between his own culture and the modern world.

“He is making it easier for the world to understand. And he’s making it new. The world wants to know more about him. Closing their eyes, and opening their hearts, they will see him," Gurruwiwi says.

Blind from birth and raised in the community of Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, Gurrumul was brought up learning the stories and history of his people, through song and dance, the rhythms of life and nature shaping his musical ear and sensibilities. When telling of the life of Gurrumul, his culture and community was a hugely important aspect of the film.

"The audience requires a lot of information to make sense of Gurrumul’s musical rise because it emerged from a culture that’s so different to that of most people watching the film," Filmmaker Williams says. "I’ve assumed our audience knows next to nothing about Australian Indigenous culture generally, less about the Yolngu culture of North East Arnhem Land, and nothing about Gurrumul’s Gumatj Clan Nation.

Gurrumul is the personification of a cross-over artist, likewise, the film must cross back and forth between his Yolngu and the broader whitefella worlds." he says.

Away from cameras and the stage, we are also given a glimpse of the sense of humour and cheekiness that Gurrumul maintained throughout his life and career. With such a big, bright personality, he is a very much loved and honoured member of his community. His musical success as a member of Yothu Yindi, Saltwater Band and then as a solo artist, is a source of great pride in Elcho Island. 

When Gurrumul arrives home after long periods away from touring and recording, we see a great deal of affection upon his return. In touching and heartbreaking sequences Gurrumul learns of loved ones passing away, and we see the funeral ceremonies that he travels back home for. A rare and moving visual of how life and death is honoured in Yolngu community.

What Williams has been able to achieve here is quite remarkable, to be able to capture these very intimate moments within the community speaks to the level of trust and respect between the community and the film-makers, and also an acknowledgement of the status of Gurrumul. In a culture where the names and images of those that have passed over are retired, a generous allowance from Gurrumul's family has made this strict protocol permissible, where the musician's important role in life continues beyond, as a bridge between two cultures.

Central to Gurrumul's career was Michael Hohnen, a musician and producer who established SkinnyFish Records and was the first to encourage the shy singer to step out from the Saltwater Band to develop his own unique style of playing and performing.

It was a professional partnership which helped to bring Gurrumul's unique interpretation of the 'manikay' (the songlines of his people) to life. Through the film we get a glimpse of just how special and integral the bond between Gurrumul and Hohnen was, with the latter often being known as the spokesperson for the acutely shy performer both on stage and in interviews. Though affectionately calling each other "wäwa", the Gumatj word for 'brother', we can see how their connection was more like family.

In what has already made history by being the first album sung entirely in language to top the charts on it's release, we see the final musical masterpiece, the posthumously released Djarimirri being brought to life through the fusion of Gurrumul's voice and guidance in traditional song being fused with the work of composer Erkki Veltheim and the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The album and the documentary are both a bittersweet final offering from a truly gifted and special artist, whose legacy will live on and continue to touch the lives and imagination of generations to come. 

Ted Gondarra, Elcho Island resident stated that the final wish for the film, which was given approval by Gurrumul only a few days before he passed away, was that it would be a source of continued pride for the community.

"Our hope for this film is that the people depicted within it, upon watching it, are filled with pride. Too often Aboriginal Australians feel their culture is hijacked by another agenda, a balanda (whitefella) agenda, and distorted beyond recognition. Just ask. We Yolngu live by our own unique balance of life, culture and land and we care for our country and our people.”

In Yolngu lore the name, image and voice of the recently deceased is retired from all public use. However, a very rare exception has been made by Gumatj and Gälpu clan leaders for this film. 

GURRUMUL is screening in cinemas nationally from 25 April 2018