'High Ground': Gripping drama based on Aboriginal resistance

January 19, 2021
High Ground stars Jacob Junior Nayinggul (r) and Simon Baker (l). Images: High Ground/FB

High Ground
Directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Written by Stephen Anastassiades
Starring Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Caren Pistorius, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximillian Johnson, Jack Thompson
In cinemas

High Ground is a gripping 1930s period drama set in Arnhem Land.

It opens with a massacre of an entire Aboriginal family group by Northern Territory police. From there, a story of remorse and revenge unfolds, as mutually hostile killers stalk Aboriginal resistance fighters. But the changing point of view of who is hunting whom allows Aboriginal stories to come to the surface.

The multiple protagonists’ conflicts and shifting enmities fill the narrative. While the characters of Travis (Simon Baker) and Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) thread through the story, the viewer is never sure exactly who the lead character is, who is betraying whom and whose motives are untarnished.

Much like recent Australian drama, The Furnace, the lush countryside of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land does not just frame the story, it is a character itself.

The cinematography is stunning and the soundscape makes the environment visceral. But there is another element, Aboriginal connection to country, that seeps through.

That is a product of the film's decades-long production process.

Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson told Green Left that he worked on the project for about 30 years. He collected stories from peoples of the Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Galpu and Wangurri clan groups to develop the story.

As he and producer Witiyana Marika explained, the film involved the whole Arnhem Land community. Old people — “mostly powerful ladies” — were enlisted to explain exactly how people made spears and wore clothing in the period.

Young people worked with the elders in producing realistic props. Guardians of country explained the significance of the places where filming took place.

This respectful production process is reflected in the extraordinary final credits. Every member of each clan consulted in the production is listed and all Traditional Owners of the land on which High Ground was filmed are executive producers.

The massacre that commences the narrative is based on slaughters that happened across Australia, including a mass murder involving Marika’s mother’s clan.

“We never learned about these things in school,” he said. “It only came out at a NAIDOC celebration, when my father starting talking about it.”

“It was at NAIDOC day that we heard about the Aboriginal resistance.”

Throughout the film there are visual references to the totems of various Aboriginal characters. These started to make themselves felt in the filming process.

For example, the totem of mission-raised massacre survivor Gutjuk is the hawk.

In one telling scene, rogue killer-cop Eddy (Callan Mulvey) tells a missionary whom he considers insufficiently racist: “You can’t share a country, Claire.” As he turns to walk away, the shadow of a hawk swoops over him.

“That shadow happened just like that,” Johnson told Green Left. “As soon as I saw it on the play back I knew that was the take.”

There are shots of a black cockatoo in the film as well. “That cockatoo held off a rain storm so we could finish shooting one day," Marika said.

Part of the film’s success is the on-screen chemistry between first-time actor Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Hollywood star Simon Baker.

“Their on-screen relationship reflected their off-screen bonding,” said Johnson.

Baker went on a personal journey through the production process. He attended the Garma Festival and was formally adopted into the Wangurri clan, being granted an Aboriginal name.

High Ground is a compelling movie, but it is also a milestone in the cultural maturity of Australia, weaving together Aboriginal and white narrative traditions.

“The white story of Australia’s history is bullshit,” said Johnson. “This movie is the Aboriginal take on history.”

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