'Gurrumul': Film Review | Berlin 2018

A profound and transporting songline.

A close-up of the celebrated Indigenous Australian singer and multi-instrumentalist, blind since birth, who died just three days after signing off on this film.

In the uncomfortably amusing opening sequence of Gurrumul, an interviewer from Australian public broadcaster ABC in 2008 questions the subject about the ways in which being blind has shaped his music, then asks how he feels about the phenomenal sales of his self-titled first album. He responds with silence. That awkward exchange typifies some of the challenges of making a documentary portrait of such a taciturn artist, a man who appears fully at ease only among his family and remote island community. His evident indifference to the standard rewards and obligations of music-industry success presents its own set of obstacles.

Yet director Paul Damien Williams' poignant film captures the singular qualities — both as an artist and a man — of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the widely celebrated aboriginal 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 doc 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.

Two key access paths pursued by Williams enable him to circumvent Gurrumul's reticence. One is the trusted "whitefella" collaborators who formed indie record label Skinnyfish Music — producer and fellow musician Michael Hohnen and manager Mark T. Grose. The other is Gurrumul's aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, whose intermittent narration provides family background and broader cultural insight. Then there's the observant camera, evoking with direct simplicity and without intrusiveness the ebb and flow of life on Elcho Island, off the coast of northeast Arnhem Land in Australia's rugged Northern Territory. The addition of vintage 8mm and 16mm footage, including scenes from Gurrumul's childhood, is especially captivating.

Grose had been living in remote communities amongst Indigenous Australians for 10 years when Hohnen, disenchanted with the Melbourne music scene, began running a workshop out of Darwin. When he first visited Galiwin'ku, Gurrumul's island hometown, Hohnen was astonished that few locals spoke English but almost everyone played a musical instrument. Among them, the acknowledged standout was Gurrumul, who had been a member of breakout aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi but left a couple years earlier.

Encouraged by the raw talent in the community, Hohnen and Grose formed Skinnyfish, signing Saltwater Band, featuring Gurrumul, as their first act. Their plan was to get aboriginal music to aboriginal people, so they put the band on a bus and started touring locally. It quickly emerged that the blind Gurrumul, who played guitar left-handed and upside-down, was the "quiet genius" of the group. When Hohnen first suggested he try some solo recording he was resistant, coming from a culture that placed greater value on collectivity. But Gurrumul came around, seemingly recognizing the benefit of sharing his gift.

Footage from the artist's first Sydney solo show in 2008 — accompanied by violins, a second guitar, and Hohnen on double bass — makes it clear that comments about the unique purity and yearning, the timelessness of his vocals were not just random praise. The affecting power of the music is tangible. His aunt explains why translation is unnecessary: "Already the song has told you who he is in the world."

The release of Gurrumul's first album and its introduction on national radio got a boost from coincidental timing. It occurred the same week then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd became the first Australian government leader to offer a formal apology for the officially sanctioned mistreatment of the country's indigenous population through much of the 20th century. Gurrumul would go on to perform for Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, among others. But the basic incompatibility of this shy, private man with the hype and spotlight of the music industry were seldom in doubt.

The first concrete example shown of this is at the 2009 ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Music Awards, which yielded a win for best independent release, along with some excruciating moments of red-carpet cultural dislocation. Even more cringe-inducing is a musical collaboration on French TV, initiated by Sting, in which Gurrumul was persuaded to perform a duet with him on "Every Breath You Take," a song that held zero meaning for the Australian artist. Sting comes across as a beatific poseur during the performance, and then just plain clueless in the green room afterward, making a clumsy joke about singing "Oh can't you see?" to a blind man.

The fundamental disconnect between Gurrumul's cultural values and the commercial music industry becomes incontrovertible when, on the eve of a carefully planned tour designed to crack the all-important U.S. market, Gurrumul simply doesn't show at Darwin airport. While acknowledging that Hohnen was Gurrumul's brother in every sense but their skin, his aunt talks about the difficulty for her nephew of serving as a bridge between Yolngu and "balanda" (white) worlds. But it's here also that the depth of mutual love Hohnen and Grose felt for him is conveyed to moving effect.

They track him down back on Elcho, immersed in traditional stories that connect him not only to his human ancestors, but also to the saltwater crocodile and rainbow python from which he believes he is descended. These spiritual elements are treated with the utmost seriousness in the film. Likewise Gurrumul's decision to skip the American trip simply because he had more learning to do at home in order to be able to sing from Creation to the end of the song lines.

"We have to learn to live with that more than he has to learn to live with us," says Hohnen. Grose is similarly accepting about the aborted business venture. "All we lost was money," he shrugs. "We didn't lose the relationship with Gurrumul." The artist did subsequently agree to travel to the U.S., perhaps because he felt he owed it to Hohnen and Grose; a scene of him performing a low-key gig in a San Francisco used record store — in which the camera monitors the changing expressions on the faces of browsing customers as they hear his voice — is just lovely. But both collaborators say they continued to operate with the fatalistic view that every concert, every record, could be the last.

The concluding section of the film documents a late collaboration with Finland-born modern classical composer Erkki Veltheim (who also supplies some of the contemplative string underscoring), touching on interesting points about the difficulties of finding Western notations for an oral musical culture.

Gurrumul's uncle and parents share their observations throughout, glancing back to his childhood, to the sad realization that he was born blind, to his discovery of vocal harmonies in Christian church services and to his first guitar. (The simple editing device of fading to black between scenes is an effective literal representation of his sightlessness.) Both his mother and father died during the making of the film, and moments from their funeral ceremonies add considerably to its emotional weight.

What lingers most, however, is the fact that he approved the final version of Williams' film just three days before dying in 2017 after suffering from liver and kidney diseases. Although Yolngu lore dictates that the name and image of the recently departed be withdrawn from all public use, tribal leaders on both sides of his family agreed to make an exception with this illuminating portrait.

His aunt maintains that his spirit will live on through her family, and while others make the emphatic point that the national treasure of aboriginal culture is steadily being lost, it's hard to dispute her openhearted outlook. The uplifting, light-drenched images over the end credits of beautiful Elcho coastline and of children running and playing on the beach suggest a continuation of life, not an ending.

Production companies: 6 Seasons, Resolution Media, in association with Film Victoria, Skinnyfish Music, Sutton Garage Films
Director-writer: Paul Damien Williams
Producer: Shannon Swan
Directors of photography: Dan Maxwell, Katie Milwright, Matt Toll, Gavin Head
Music: Michael Hohnen, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Erkki Veltheim
Editors: Shannon Swan, Ken Sallows
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special)

96 minutes