By Julian Wood

The musical documentary Gurrumul rightly bears just the name of the artist because he is a one-off talent. In other ways, as an indigenous Yolngu man from NT he was very much part of community and connected to country.

FilmInk recently interviewed Paul Damien Williams, who directed the film, and Michael Hohnen, Gurrumul’s friend and musical collaborator. The film is beginning to gather momentum, the ball starting rolling, as it so often has to, on the film festival circuit; it was closing night at the Melbourne International Film Festival (where it got a standing ovation). It also played at Toronto and more recently at Berlin. Now the feature is to open on 20+ screens across Australia.

We wondered how the pair felt about the portrayal of Indigenous culture in Australia. As Paul comments, “People in Australia can have a very bleak view of things like Aboriginal communities. For example, things like (John) Pilger’s Utopia fed into that. And you can do that with anything. It was a primary objective with this film to present this [issue] in a positive way, and in a way that Yonglu people largely see themselves. Look, we all have problems, that’s true for all of us, but the reporting on indigenous issues has been so focused on negative aspects.”

The director and his producer, Shannon Swan, decided from the outset to take a particular stance in relation to these struggles over representation. No one is arguing that remote communities, for example, do not face certain challenges given the geography and history of Australia. However, that recognition should not tip over into a straight deficit view of Indigenous culture as something dysfunctional. The filmmakers tell us that they had this attitude from the inception. The producer’s intention was always to portray this incredible enduring culture. They talked frankly to Mark Grose [a music producer and friend of Gurrumul] beforehand. As they tell us, there were some simple but important upfront conditions that were made clear.

 “There was to be nothing about his health [problems]. The focus was to be on the music and the culture. [As one of the uncles said] ‘you need to present our dignity’. That is why this film is at the opposite end from Pilger’s Utopia. [It shows] Indigenous culture with a sense of wonder and pride, with a sense of celebration. Not with a sense of despair or shame.”

The other notable aspect of the film is that it shows the friendship between Gurrumul and Michael Hohnen in such a tender light. This is a brotherly love story but one without sentimentality or forced emotions. Hohnen is in almost every scene. As Gurrumul was blind (from birth) he needed someone to guide him on and off stage, but there is so much more to their collaboration and friendship. At one point in the film we see Hohnen shaving his friend.

As Hohnen tells us, “It such an intimate thing [shaving someone with a cutthroat razor]. They trust you so much [to let you do that]. The responsibility is enormous. But you know you just have to get on with things because it is not going to work any other way.”

In a way, that is a metaphor for the whole hands-on practical approach to the collaboration that we see throughout the film.

The other most obvious and important aspect of the film is not in the visuals but in the sounds. Anyone who has heard Gurrumul in full voice will know that it was a unique and precious thing. It was a voice in a million and it took him from Elcho Island to the world stage [and it could have taken him even further if he had been remotely interested in fame in the Western sense]. Much has been written in praise of the spine-tingling quality of that voice but somehow it still resists categorisation. It comes from ‘somewhere else’ and it touches you in a way that bypasses all intellect.

Paul Williams wants to amplify that observation.

 “Yes, after six years I am still no closer to being able to explain it; which as a filmmaker you so want to do somehow. But I am not able to explain [how beautiful that voice was]. That moment when he sings in a solo context, when he’s up on the screen and his voice comes through and it is almost shocking. Where does that come from? That purity, that emotion? I have thought about it so much. And I am no closer now to really being able to explain that. Sometimes I think about it as the purest thing. That single voice. It is the purest artistic expression. [It is] the purest enunciation of our humanity, just as a sound. It is not really a translatable thing. And it is not even the language. They are responding to something much more elemental. There are very few great artists like that who can bypass everything and go straight through to the heart.”

That voice may be a bridge to another world but there are other forms of bridging that are related here. As noted, the film celebrates a way to enjoy Indigenous culture on its own terms. Williams comments upon the fact that white and black experience in Australia have often clashed or been held apart but, in another way, they have always overlapped. The fitting together of the two cultures, if you like, will have to be in a spirit of reconciliation and the film can also be viewed as one further move towards getting in step.

 “It’s the clash of two worlds with conflicting agendas and conflicting expectations of each other. That space where the two worlds overlap that is near the heart of the film. It relates to the whole idea of the Indigenous experience and how it should fit into our white world. But it doesn’t really. But when that is recognised, and it is understood something majestic can come out of that, and you see that in his final album. To my mind it is like a soundtrack for the future of this country.”

Gurrumul is in cinemas from April 25, 2018. Read our review here.


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