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Berlinale Bloggers 2018 Portrait of a unique Australian voice

The artist
The artist | © 6 Seasons Productions

First-time director Paul Damien Williams ‘Gurrumul’ explores his titular subject beyond the highest selling indigenous artist in Australian music history and instead focuses on his life, work and how the world responded to his creative gifts.

By Sarah Ward

When Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's voice floated across Australian radio airwaves in 2008 courtesy of his self-titled debut solo release, the ABC was inundated with requests to hear more. Melodic, poetic, commanding and entrancing all at once, his distinctive tenor has that effect — speaking to something deep inside his audience as he sings of his indigenous way of life and beliefs in the Gumatj, Galpu and Djambarrpuyngu languages.

Any musician would dream of that kind of response, but not the former member of Yothu Yindi and Saltwater Band. Born blind and more accustomed to making music communally rather than individually, he had to be convinced by producer and musician Michael Hohnen to go his own way. And when he did, he was far from enamoured with the industry. A man who makes his few utterances count, he's seen meeting an interviewer's questions with silence in Gurrumul, the documentary that charts his career and impact. Later in its chronicle, on the eve of an important tour to the United States, he simply doesn't show up to the airport.


It's this contrast, of a talent that says so much but often transcends words — and, more than that, eschews their usage — that sits at the heart of this respectful and celebratory film. Gurrumul doesn't pretend to explain it, only to explore who its titular subject was beyond the highest selling indigenous artist in Australian music history, how he approached his life and work, and how the world responded to his creative gifts.

Artist's potrait Artist's potrait | © 6 Seasons Productions While Gurrumul prefers to let his music do the talking, others fill in the gaps for viewers: primarily Hohnen, who is painted as a brother in everything but blood, and his aunt Susan Dhangal Gurruwiwi, who shares stories about his upbringing and provides culturally specific insights. First-time director Paul Damien Williams also has a sizeable contingent of footage at his disposal, covering Gurrumul’s childhood, his life at home on Elcho Island in East Arnhem Land, rare relaxed instances on the road, his work in the studio and performances around the world.


For fans and newcomers alike, the end result is rich, resonant and rousing. Involving, affectionate and singing with emotion, as a portrait of the man at its centre, Gurrumul learns much from its namesake — conveying a wealth of detail, but knowing that, with the right elements in place, it doesn’t need to say everything. It’s also the only chance viewers will have to peer this intimately at Gurrumul, who approved the film in July 2017, then passed away three days later.