April 2018

An evocative recalling of Gurrumul’s voice, image and name

Alice Priest reviews the much-anticipated film Gurrumul, which will be released in Australian cinemas from April 25. Her verdict: “It’s a must-see. A must-hear. However, be warned”.

BY Alice Priest

GURRUMUL – a filmic portrait of the blind Indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (d. July 2017, aged 46), one of Australia’s most celebrated and significant voices.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following … may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

Have you ever wondered, why this warning? In Yolngu Aboriginal lore, the viewer is told in the prelude to Gurrumul, that the voice, image and name of the deceased are to be “retired”. I’ve also heard it explained that using the name of the deceased recalls and disturbs their spirit and thus is entirely refrained from. And so, the first of many remarkable features of this film is that it is entitled, Gurrumul.

As it happens, the film is first and foremost an evocative recalling of Gurrumul’s voice, image and name in various landscapes – landscapes as disparate as Elcho and Manhattan Islands: one, his simple, natural island homeland; the other, the concrete-jungle home of megastars and megabucks. The film powerfully presents Gurrumul’s journey moving between these worlds – between Yolngu (blackfella) and balanda (whitefella). In this special case, the elders have given permission for Gurrumul’s name, image and voice to be used to respect and preserve his legacy.

I have Gurrumul’s self-titled album. I’d memorably seen him perform live a couple of times in Sydney. He has long intrigued and enthralled me. Still, director, Paul Williams, was pretty right in his assumptions that, “Most of our audience will know Gurrumul as ‘that blind Aboriginal singer’ if they know him at all”, and will know “next to nothing” about Aboriginal culture, and even less “about the Yolngu culture of North East Arnhem Land”.

This film is for me the best portrait of Aboriginal culture as expressed in the spirituality of the Dreaming that I’ve seen. It is the Dreaming that Gurrumul sings and shows as a vital, ancient and dynamic life force. This is also remarkable.

The film doesn’t try to teach you a lesson, but for anyone who’s tried or is trying to study the Dreaming, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Gurrumul lives the connection between the land, the Dreaming and identity. There’s a lovely moment in the film when an American music journalist is asking about Gurrumul’s totemic spirit animal, which is being explained as his identity. The journo tries to sum up: “So, he [Gurrumul] is saying that he closely identifies with that animal?” To which the ever-puzzling clarification comes, “No, he’s saying he is that animal”. The journalist’s consternation is a funny moment where the audience laughs, first at the journo for his lack of understanding, but then at themselves too. An entirely different way of thinking is evident, and this other way of truth becomes more and more palpable as the film progresses.

I’d always understood that Gurrumul didn’t talk much, not in public at least. In this film I was expecting to finally hear him speak, for himself. I suspect many of the others who attended the packed preview screening felt the same. Michael Hohnen (Gurrumul’s balanda musical collaborator and kind of skin brother) continues to do most of the mediating of what Gurrumul wants and has to say. In this sense it’s at first a little disappointing that Gurrumul doesn’t say much, but it’s certainly his story that does speak to you in a clear and compelling voice all its own. Without so many words, and without understanding his language, he speaks directly to you in his very being, in his song, and in his spirit. You know it because you feel it; your spirit recognises it. The production team headed up by producer, Shannon Swan, are to be commended for letting us hear this.

With this film, you actually begin to hear before you begin to see. Sitting in the darkness of the theatre, the opening black screen is teasingly long. You begin to wonder even if something is wrong. This black screen technique is artfully used to punctuate the film, and immediately gives you glimpses into Gurrumul’s physical blindness, switching you on to other ways of seeing and feeling.

Gurrumul’s voice in song, mostly in Yolngu language, is generously woven through the film. It reaches around and through and deeply into you; moves you. As my accompanying friend, who’d never heard of Gurrumul before simply stated, “That music speaks to your soul”. There was a palpable sense in the cinema of the spiritual at work when the music played and Gurrumul sang. You should absolutely see (and hear!) this film at a cinema, with a big screen and big sound quality.

Self-taught, and blind from birth, Gurrumul plays the guitar upside down, but for him it couldn’t be more right-way-up. The walking of two worlds and reconciling two ways of seeing and being, quickly emerge as the dominant threads of Gurrumul’s life and the film’s narrative. His blindness emerges as an incredible ability to see, know and understand deeper realities. Conversely, the more I saw Gurrumul, the more I felt that I’m often quite blind to the true meaning of things.

I found myself envying his “from the heart” view of the world, thinking how fortuitous it was that he was blind to much that is ‘balanda bullshit’; money, fame, music, the media, appearances, small talk. This was not physical blindness, but an utterly remarkable way of being not able to see the meaning in or make sense of some of the things held so preciously by balanda culture. The scenes of Gurrumul’s collaboration with pop icon Sting, and on the Aria red carpet, will particularly have you laughing and squirming in your seat as the clash of worlds is cringingly poignant. Whilst laughing, I found myself utterly on the Yolngu side, wishing I, and the whole world, could see a bit differently, a bit more truthfully.

Gurrumul shows that the walking of two worlds is only done in the harmony of relationships, hard-won, long-walked, Yolngu and balanda journeying together. The presentation of the Gurrumul-classical collaboration for his last album is a fascinating case study. The attempt to put Gurrumul’s traditional music and oral tradition into Western classical musical notation for musical harmony is awesome. And, finally, it is achieved. Eventually, and extraordinarily, the music of that two-world collaboration creates a new whole.

Towards the end, Gurrumul’s significance moves beyond the artist to the question of Australia’s search for a national culture, identity and harmony. Michael Hohnen contends that we have it; it has always been there in our Indigenous peoples. Gurrumul’s death comes to signify a national language, culture and an identity that are treasures being slowly but inexorably lost – and nobody’s taking much notice or caring very much.

Gurrumul will be released nationally on April 25. It’s a must-see. A must-hear. However, be warned.

WARNING: Gurrumul contains a voice, image and name that will take you out of this world.


Alice Priest

Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 20 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany and Australia. Alice is currently working at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney, where she teaches religion and English, and is head of faith formation and liturgy.

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