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Film review: Gurrumul

Film & TV

Opening in cinemas at the same time as his final album tops the ARIA charts, this documentary offers an intimate look at the life of Gurrumul – the singer with an angelic voice who raised awareness of Yolngu culture around the world.

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One of the delights of the film is the footage of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s Yolngu community on Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land and seeing how the singer, who was blind from birth, learned songs as a child. We also see how important songs were in the passing on of culture.

The film is narrated by Gurrumul’s aunt, Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, and her commentary places his life in perspective, as well as providing a clarity regarding what connection to country means to Indigenous people. Audiences are shown the community members going about their daily activities, with song and dance integrated into their way of life.

A moving highlight of the film is the closeness of Gurrumul and his manager, Michael Hohnen, of Skinnyfish Music, with the two described as being like brothers.

The documentary also illustrates how although Gurrumul was an internationally recognised performer, he did not conform to the conventional notion of a superstar: there is an embarrassing early interview where he just does not speak, and a television performance with Sting in which he shines but where there is an evident lack of awareness of his nature and cultural background. We see how a massive tour of the US fell through because Gurrumul did not want to go and was more interested in returning to his homeland to learn more about his culture.

The contrast between crass commercial exploitation of musicians in the search for fame and record sales, and a genuine artist who was connected with his people, culture and country, is clearly documented. To see Gurrumul live was a heartwarming, exceptional experience because you knew you were in the presence of genius.

Gurrumul is a film for everyone, just as his music is: it is a film about triumph over adversity and the existence of hope in tragedy. It provides a glimpse of how respect for Indigenous culture may lead to a renewed relationship between the non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, something which can only come from a true recognition, understanding and valuing of Indigenous people and culture.

Director Paul Damien Williams states that Australians would be outraged if the Sydney Opera House was falling apart and would demand that it be repaired, yet Indigenous songlines, knowledge and ceremonies have been lost or destroyed continually since colonisation while we silently watch it happen.

Gurrumul is irreplaceable but the community that spawned his genius exists and we should be doing whatever is required to ensure that it and all other Indigenous communities are maintained, strengthened and allowed to flourish.

Gurrumul’s posthumously released album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow), this week became the first album in an Indigenous language to top the ARIA charts.

Note: the late singer’s family has allowed the use of his image.

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