One such project – the documentary Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy – is an important piece telling the remarkable journey of Yolngu elder, traditional custodian, creative and father, Djalu Gurruwiwi, on his quest to ensure that his knowledge and culture is passed along to a younger generation.
Westwind: Djalu’s Legacy was supported by the MIFF Premiere Grant, which aims to financially support and promote the projects of important emerging filmmakers. After close to eight years of production twists, turns and evolution, director Ben Strunin is glad to see that Gurruwiwi’s tale will soon be told.
“This film was a passion project of mine, so it had virtually no funding,” Strunin explains. “Some of it was self-funded, some of it was funded by philanthropist friends and art collectors. It was very piecemeal. Once I had proper funding behind me from MIFF, Screen Australia, NITV and Film Victoria, all these people came together. Instead of spending a lot of energy and just trying to get money together to do the next shoot in the most frugal way possible, I could do shoots properly. Bringing in other writers, the cameraman, editors, producers; just to do it a bit more professionally and raise the standard of the film in general.”
Strunin’s first meeting with Gurruwiwi is a remarkable story in itself. In 2009, Strunin and producer Kate Pappas found themselves in Oenpelli, Northern Territory, working with the creative community for a film on Indigenous rock art. While being guided around a sacred site, they met an eccentric European yidaki (the Yolngu name for didgeridoo) gallery curator named Bear Love (originally Colin Goring) who, coincidentally, lived close to Strunin in London.
Several months later, Love contacted Strunin to tell him a tale of meeting his “spiritual guru” and “premier craftsman” of the yidaki – Gurruwiwi. Love took Gurruwiwi to London, in the hopes that a now very fascinated Strunin would make a film about his life’s journey. From there, he toured Europe for a month with Gurruwiwi and his wife, performing his incredible talents at seminars and music festivals to inspire thousands.
“We became really close,” Strunin says. “They adopted me into their family and their clan. We made plans that I would have to come to visit them and experience what they were teaching about their culture and their land. I think the perversity of the whole thing was that I learned all this stuff about Yolgnu culture that I’d never learned in Australia on the road in Europe with this master of the didgeridoo. It all unravelled quite organically from there. I hadn’t planned it, I hadn’t scripted it. I was invited into this world.
“It gradually dawned on me. I could see how important Djalu was and I could see the reverence people had for him. Just to be in his presence – you feel it instantaneously, because he’s a powerful, mystical man. He’s very generous, he’s very charismatic. He’s full of love. You love the guy almost instantaneously. He’s got a magnetic personality, and he’s clearly a maverick in the way that he travels the world sharing his culture.”
Transcending the bounds of language and culture, Strunin observed Gurruwiwi create powerful connections with his craft. Strunin labelled one technique the ‘heart-blast’: a unique practice that Gurruwiwi has refined, where he points his yidaki straight at someone’s heart and plays a healing songline that reverberates through the body.
“It’s projecting pure love and understanding through that sound,” Strunin explains. “You can see the biggest cynics, who would be against all that ‘hippie sentiment’. You see him play the yidaki into people’s hearts, and you can see them melt. You can see that instant connection, where they understand everything. They understand how important and powerful this man is as soon as he plays that sound through their body.”
The more Strunin learned about and shared with Gurruwiwi, the more he understood the importance of his mission to heal and impart wisdom, even drawing the attention of Wally De Backer – perhaps better known as Gotye. De Backer wanted to meet Gurruwiwi and learn from a master. Strunin captured the two artists making a profound connection through music.
Hoping to help maintain the connection to the natural forces and powers that Gurruwiwi has dedicated his life to, Strunin feels very lucky and appreciative to be invited into his world. Just one of many stories housed at MIFF this year, Strunin considers Gurruwiwi’s tale a life-changing cinematic experience.
“The intention of the film is to amplify Djalu’s message to as wide an audience as possible; an audience that wouldn’t normally listen to a story like this. It’s always been part of the intention – to amplify his sound and message to the world.”