I’m so glad I caught this heartbreakingly beautiful documentary about the late Dr. G. Yunupingu at the State Cinema in Hobart on its last day of screening. The story and the man alone is enough reason to see it yet you don’t have to be a fan of his music to enjoy it. It is made all the more rewarding by its respectful narrative and exquisite sound editing and cinematography.
The film opens with an acknowledgement that the singer approved the completed film four days before he passed away in July 2017 and it has not been changed. In Yolngu tradition, the name and image of a deceased person is retired and no longer used. Permission was given for the filmmakers to use his name but I will refer to him as G.
The Yolngu people live in North-East Arnhem Land and G was born on Elcho Island. Born blind, his family talk about their assumption that he would never have independence or be able to experience anything other than home. Michael Hohnen, a young balanda (white fella) running a music program in Arnhem Land, met G with all the other young Yolngu men who could singe and play multiple instruments. G was the quiet one, prominent because he had once been part of Australia’s best-known and most successful Indigenous band, Yothu Yindi, but a man of few words.
With Hohnen, they formed the group Saltwater Band and toured Aboriginal communities, also creating an independent record label, Skinny Fish. As Hohnen tells it, it took persuasion for G to record a few solo tracks but when he heard his voice, he knew this was something special. Singing only in Language, those first few tracks set both G and Hohnen on an unprecedented trajectory of ARIA awards, US tours and the adulation of stars such as Sting, Björk and Elton John.
Grounding both G and the film is the ever-present force of his home, culture and family. Returning to Elcho Island when he can and constantly in touch with family by phone and webcam whilst on tour, G has an important role as descendant of his mother’s and father’s clans. The words he sings come from stories and songs that are tens of thousands of years old. As long-time producer Mark Grose points out, if a tile fell of the Opera House each day there would be outcry but our Aboriginal history, languages and culture are being lost, one word each day. This culture is at the heart of who we are as a nation.
Director Paul Damien Williams does an excellent job at his first feature film, telling the story with respect and a deft weaving of sublime sound with character and drama. G rarely speaks but his character shines clearly through and his music is transcendent. Hohnen acts as his spokesperson in public, a role he is not always comfortable with as he understands how white voices dominate but done at the request of G. He has been with him through each step of his solo career.
As promised at the start, the film doesn’t dwell at all on G’s passing but there is comment from his aunt about death. “We are given only one life and one death,” and she speaks of him being on the last pages of a ‘book’ that will continue for his nieces and nephews. The film closes with image of Yolngu people. With the sorrow of the loss of such a great musician comes the grief of understanding what a loss he and so many other Aboriginal people are to their families, culture and to us all.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.