Meticulously crafted both on-screen and off – it took director Stephen Maxwell Johnson many years to earn the trust and co-operation of the indigenous communities whose stories and culture would be depicted – High Ground is an intense, visually stunning drama that draws on the genre conventions of the western, whilst transcending such tropes due to its diligent technique.
Johnson has a long standing connection to the Aboriginal culture and language, with his 2001 debut feature film Yolngu Boy informing his respect, and indigenous rock group Yothu Yindi’s former member Witiyana Marika serving as a producer, co-star, and soundtrack vocalist here following his own collaboration with Johnson on a number of the band’s video clips. It’s this evident respect and care from both sides that adds to High Ground‘s authenticity, aiding the film in its brutality as its peaceful setting is violently uprooted in a matter of minutes during the confronting opening scene.
Initially set in 1919, the film introduces us to World War 1 sniper Travis (Simon Baker), a level-headed officer who is overlooking an operation involving an indigenous family and the white police officers who interrupt their peaceful gathering. What should be a procedure of minimal force is quickly transformed into a bloodbath, due to the trigger-happy, prejudice fingers of lawman Eddy (Callan Mulvey). It’s a horrible scene, but one that appears necessary in its violent depiction of the white man’s treatment of Aboriginal people.
Taking pity on young survivor Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr), Travis drops him off at a nearby outpost where he can be raised in a safe environment under the guidance of white missionaries; Caren Pistorius and Ryan Corr bringing a few moments of levity as two of his carers. Constantly riddled with guilt over the incident that took place, Travis moves on from the force to work as a bounty hunter, but his new path ultimately crosses with a grown-up Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) who is recruited as a tracker when Travis, under the thumb of his former employer (an at-times terrifying Jack Thompson), is asked to take on Gutjuk’s uncle, Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), who is leading an uprising against white settlers.
With their own relationship forming from a place of trust, Travis is hoping that he will have the assistance of Gutjuk in suggesting a peaceful resolution to Baywarra’s intentions, though the film constantly threats a looming showdown that we can only assume will explode with deep-seated division and guilt. Whilst High Ground plays with the tropes of a western narrative, Johnson and screenwriter Chris Anastassiades (whose writing credits vary from such television offerings as Round the Twist and The Bureau of Magical Things, to locally made efforts Hating Alison Ashley and The Wog Boy) do their best to avoid the “white saviour” mentality that so many racially-charged stories often adhere to. There’s a delicateness to how they incorporate the local dialects of the Yolgnu language that, like recent, similarly-themed Australian films The Nightingale and The Furnace, showcases an understanding and respect of these tribes, avoiding a sense of white-washing in their depictions.
Save for an underwhelming representation of women and Mulvey’s character falling into relative caricature embodiment – his character is unashamedly racist and little more than a one dimensional villain in every sense of the word – High Ground is a visually arresting drama that presents itself as a timely anti-racist message, captured beautifully through an Australian lens that honours its country’s allure, whilst acknowledging its historical atrocities.
High Ground is screening in Australian cinemas from January 28th, 2021.