Roy Wunyumbi


Legendary Wagilak songman Roy Wunyumbi takes us on two parallel and interwoven journeys : the funeral of a relative where he sings the Gandjalala ( Sugar Bag Hunter) song cycle to guide the spirit home, and through remote North-East Arnhem Land where he sings the song to the Country it belongs. Retracing the creation journey of the great ancestral being until we arrive , on both journeys, at the place ‘the song was born’, to which the spirit must be returned . “We carry that spirit back by the song, take the shadow home.”

In the funeral context Roy creates an astral pathway with song. As we traverse the physical pathway of the song in Country Roy explains what occurred as Gandjalala travelled. By inter-cutting the two we experience the astral pathway as mirrored in Country.

Roy has been unwell for some time, which he attributes to his absence from Country, his Country is unwell because he is not in it, “When you stay far away Country is sick and crying for you’. As we move closer to the heart of Roy’s Country his increased vitality is obvious. The song is a regenerative force , ensuring renewal of Country and people. It is also the key to the afterlife.

Roy’s son Sammy accompanies him on didjeridoo. Inter-generational transmission of culture is imperative for maintenance of songs which hold entire knowledge systems but Roy laments that young people are often unable to speak the language the song is sung in. In his concerns questions arise: if the song is not sung who will guide Sammy’s spirit home; who will ensure the renewal of Country; what could be done to prevent the loss of these epic poems, currently disappearing at alarming rate; why has the government axed the bilingual education program, why have funds been withdrawn from Homelands forcing people off Country. Whilst cinematic, lyrical and poetic in it’s execution and content, the film addresses globally relevant questions in the drive toward cultural homogenisation. We’re all familiar with the threat to bio-diversity, but what of ethno diversity? The last forty years has seen the death of 4000 of the globes 7000 languages. Each one contained an entire knowledge system . This film explores that reality and it’s implications in the context of the life, cultural knowledge and experience of Roy Wunyumbi, Songman of North East Arnhem Land.

This film addresses important global issues through an intimate personal story . These issues are highlighted in a Ted.Com talk on Endangered Cultures by National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Wade Davis. In an engaging, visually evocative and poetic manner, ‘The Songman’ reveals the significance of the epic poems that traverse Australia. It explores how and why they are being lost at an alarming rate and the deeper ramifications in terms of global cultural impoverishment. According to John Godfrey’s SBS, ‘The team you have assembled is impressive, but with indigenous documentaries, we are looking for ideas that tackle big issues – domestic violence or indigenous deaths in custody.’ The issues at the heart of this film , linguistic and cultural maintenance and the political and social infrastructures that enhance or hinder that, is one of the biggest issues of our time. The dlilemma faced by Roy Wunyumbi is the personal face of that story. The Songman looks past mainstream media narratives of dysfunction and abuse to explore what lies behind it , the break down of culture, inter-generational transmission, social structure, language and identity. A film of immense relevance in the face of cultural homogenisation on a global scale.


This film will be packaged with specially designed curricular resources to work in with Indigenous studies as part of the new national curriculum. A study guide and application will be distributed through Atom to schools across Australia, their database includes 60,000 teachers and industry personnel. We will also work with Education Services Australia ( ESA). ‘ The documentary ‘The Songman’ you have outlined in your draft proposal , as either a complete work or through the provision of educationally relevant clips would be an invaluable resource for both teachers and students across a number of year levels and content descriptions of the new Australian Curriculum in both English and History. The Songman would strongly support the Cross Curriculum Priority area of ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ , by providing opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. This knowledge and understanding will specifically support the integration of indigenous perspectives across the curriculum’ – Martin Stone, senior manager of content acquisition ESA.


Liz Thompson’s films include The Last Magician, Cave in the Snow and Breaking Bows and Arrows which won the The United Nations Australian Media Peace Award , The AIBD World Award for promotion of conflict resolution and the Grand Jury Prize at FIFO.

Pat Fiske is an experienced director and producer. In 2001 she was awarded the prestigious Stanley Hawes Award for her outstanding contribution to the documentary industry in Australia. Some of the films she has directed are award-winning documentaries: Rocking the Foundations; Woolloomooloo; For All the World to See; Australia Daze and Following the Fenceline. She produced Business Behind Bars, Selling Sickness, River of No Return and Scarlet Road. Pat was co-head of documentary at AFTRS from 2002-2008.

DOP – Germain McMicking
Sound – David Tranter
Composer – David Page
Editor – James Bradley
Assistant Producer /Translator – Yingiya Guyula (Superb translations provide a unique insight into the songs depth/meaning.)
Assistant Director – Roy Wunyumbi

– See more at Documentary Australia Foundation.