MA15+, 105 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
High Ground has been a long time in the making. Twenty years, the filmmakers say. People like David Gulpilil were once attached to the project. It world-premiered in Berlin just before Covid hit, then had to wait out the year as the cinema release stalled.
It is well worth the wait. A collaboration between Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land and top film creatives brought together under the direction of Stephen Maxwell Johnson, a filmmaker who hails from the Top End.
The immensity of the controversial task at hand – a drama set during the frontier wars in the 1930s – could have robbed it of essential dramatic tension, of narrative drive. A couple of the actors do overplay their hand but the film’s objectives in depicting both Indigenous and settler point-of-view is achieved, overall.
Furthermore, High Ground is rich with moments of sensuous beauty and power. Not since Rolf de Heer’s memorable Ten Canoes of 2006 have we been so completely immersed among the magpie geese, the paperbark eucalypts, the pandanus and the crocodiles of Arnhem Land.
There is irreverent humour too. The screenplay is the work of Chris Anastassiades. He was the screenwriter for Johnson’s first film, Yolngu Boy in 2001, and is also responsible for The Wog Boy and assorted other comedic adventures.
it takes a risk with a young unknown in a key role
Andrew Commis (Babyteeth, Beautiful Kate) wields the camera, BAFTA and Oscar-nominated editor Jill Bilcock has presided in the editing suite. Talent in front of camera includes the familiar faces of Aaron Pedersen and Simon Baker. Jack Thompson is there too.
At the same time, High Ground takes a risk with a young unknown in a lead role.
Jacob Junior Nayingull who plays opposite star of the international screen, Simon Baker, is surely set to become the new Gulpilil. This is the first appearance in a feature film for the young man who works as a ranger in East Arnhem Land. Graceful in his movements, a natural on horseback, nuanced in his facial expressions and with a beautiful, strong face, Nayingull is a tremendous find.
The film’s opening sequences at a secluded waterhole set the tragic events in train. It becomes apparent a group of Aborigines is being scoped by a distant sniper, and the mood flips to menace. The subsequent police raid is bungled, leaving many dead and one child orphaned. Travis (Simon Baker), from the raiding party, hands the boy over to Christian missionaries.
The narrative then jumps 12 years to 1931. It has relocated to the East Alligator River area, where Gutjuk (Nayingull now in the role) has been brought up by Father Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister, Claire (Caren Pistorius).
Travis comes back into the young man’s life when the authorities instruct the former policeman-turned-bounty hunter to track down a renegade mob of Aborigines. They are led by Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) an uncle of Gutjuk’s who also survived the family massacre. Gutjuk will be used as ‘bait’ to bring Baywara in.
The scene that speaks to the title of the film takes place on the summit of a rocky outcrop with a 360 degree view of the floodplains, savanna and sandstone tors of Kakadu. While we swoon at the glorious views from Commis’ camera, we hear Gutjuk getting instructions on how to shoot from the former World War I sniper, Travis.
To occupy the high ground means you control everything, it’s what you want to aim for, he says, ever invoking the language of war. The expression, of course, need not be applied in this sense, and invites other interpretations.
intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged
Whose justice will Baywara face if he is captured? Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika, co-founder of the breakout Indigenous rock band, Yothu Yindi) lends his dignity and presence to the scenes that involve a fierce debate about the law. Should First Nation or Balanda (white man) law apply to Baywara?
Johnson is likely better known for his direction of Yothu Yindi music clips than he ever was for his first fiction feature, Yolngu Boy. Yes, the famous track Treaty was directed by him.
High Ground will surely change all that for the director. His new film, more outback western than thriller, is more arthouse than genre, despite his intentions. It is intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged and a stunning reminder of the magnificence of the natural world.
First published in the Canberra Times on 30 January 2021
*Featured image: Jacob Junior Nayingull and Simon Baker in High Ground