On July 25, 2017 Dr G Yunupingu passed away after a long battle with illness. In his 46 years, Gurrumul left a lasting legacy in Australian music as a member of Yothu Yindi, Saltwater Band, and as an acclaimed solo artist. Blind since birth, the singer and multi-instrumentalist became one of the most commercially successful Aboriginal Australian musicians of all time. With a new documentary about his life screening as part of the Perth Festival’s Lotterywest Films, DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Paul Williams about bringing this extraordinary life to the big screen.
What drew you to Gurrumul as a subject for a documentary?
I was living in Darwin (I’m originally from Melbourne, but living in Perth now), and I was working for Skinnyfish Music as a kind of an in-house filmmaker. I saw the daily backwards and forwards between all their indigenous artists, particularly Gurrumul Yunupingu, and I got to meet him through those interactions. I was always a big fan of his music, prior to coming to work at Skinny Fish, and yeah.. that’s what drew me to it. I started making some shorter films (not related to this one) at Galiwin’ku and other places on Elcho Island and got to know his family very well, and started to make some films in their languages. Then met a Melbourne based producer named Shannon Swan, and started knocking this idea around. That’s how we started the project.
Shannon had just directed Lygon Street-Si parla Italiano (2013) at that stage?
He produced and co-directed that. We met socially. We can’t remember the exact machinations of how we pitched the idea to Gurrumul, Mark (Grosse), and Michael (Hohnen),(Gurrumul’s manager and musical collaberator, respectively) but after a bit of back and forth they said yes. It was a bit of a hot ticket item, the ABC wanted to do something, SBS wanted to do something, but they like our approach, so we got to do something, which was great.
It’s a bit of a fine balancing act you set yourself. You wanted to approach the film from an insider perspective, but to still be accessible for people that had never heard of Gurrumul. How did you find that balance?
It was tricky. It was half a year at the end in the edit suite, so that’s a long time for a film. Getting the balance right between a familiar audience, and one that will discover him through the film. You have to remember that most people will know nothing about him. You can’t assume any prior knowledge that people know – where Elcho Island is, that people know what Yolngu is? You can’t assume any of these things! So we had to start for an absolute beginner, but at the same time make it for those more familiar with the subject matter.
What was the impact of Gurrumul, both during his career, and his legacy now?
He’s had an enormous impact. His lasting impact is he’s introduced a white audience to the abundant beauty that exists in the Australian Indigenous experience, that many would not imagine to exist. Prior to spending all the time I did on Elcho Island and the surrounding areas along there, I had no idea of the cultural expression in that world, and how beautiful it was. Gurrumul’s music took it’s origination from that place, and that’s his inspiration. And I think in doing that, he makes us look at the broader idea of Aboriginality (if we can call it that) in a very different way. I think he demands people look at that world with an awe that they hadn’t previously done, as well as with a dignity and a respect they hadn’t previously done. I think that will be his lasting legacy. Given the reckoning of race relationship that’s happening in this country at the moment, and will continue for the next 50 to 100 years, I feel that he’ll become a significant historical figure in that regard.
He also had a rather unusual attitude with the “western” idea of fame, and being in the public eye?
The idea of participating in what we are doing now (a presser) was just an anathema him. We start the film with his response to that – he wasn’t interested. I mean the film has been selected for Berlin (The 68th Berlin International Film Festival), so after Perth we’re headed there, which is great for us. But if G was still with us, we’d ring up, and he’d be like “oh, yeah?” He couldn’t care. That level of awards, and that moment in the spotlight, it held no interest for him. And in this “famous for 15 seconds” world, it’s very refreshing and different. It certainly created a mystique around him as a personality.
You mentioned the start of the film, one of the techniques you use was an extended shot of darkness, slowly bringing the sound mix in before the visuals. It’s a technique you return to a number of times in the documentary. What was your aim there?
When we were in the edit suite we were like how long can we keep our nerve for- and it’s a long time, but we’ve got the tittles running through out it, but that’s his experience. That’s the experience of a blind man. They’ve only got an aural understanding of the world. We just wanted the audience just to check in, because I think what happens when you are watching the film – that you forget you’re with a blind man, as he’s so well adapted and so functional. That blindness really takes a backseat. So there were times we wanted to approximate the bewildering experience of being on the Red Carpet at the Aria awards, or being in a place you don’t know, We use it as a technique to check in with G as a character throughout.
Two things we should probably mention is that this film has a dispensation from clan elders and family, to show Gurrumul’s image, even though he’s deceased, and that Gurrumul approved the cut we are seeing.
He was one of the co-producer, and we knew the status of his health at the end, so we were rushing to get it finished. So three days prior to his eventual passing he had another listen to the film, with someone explaining what was happening. So he approved the final cut of the film. At his tribal funeral, there was a big tribal meeting to decide what to do, not only with the film, but with his music as well. In traditional Yolngu lore, for quiet a long period the name and the image is retired. But given his reach and his fame, and their desire to safeguard his legacy, they’ve made an exception in his case.
Gurrumul screens at the UWA Sommerville from February 12 to February 18, and the ECU Joondalup Pines from February 20 to February 25, as part of the Perth Festival Lotterywest Films.