Partly inspired by real events in 1919 High Ground is a film of immense beauty and shocking violence between Indigenous Australians and white settlers. It is a respectful reimaging and balanced portrayal of the life and customs of Australia’s first peoples, and the injustices and brutality shown by both sides.
It was filmed by Andrew Commis in some of the most remote untouched county in the world. Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land are shown in wonderful colour, and the use of a drone allows us to see the towering rock formations, wildlife and the pristine environment in a way that is not possible for tourists.
It opens with the sounds of birdsong and the hum of insects.
A peaceful tribe in idyllic surroundings are startled by white police officers led by Travis (Simon Baker. The Mentalist) chasing runaway convicts. They are charged with a peaceful mission – but this turns into a bloody massacre when trigger-happy Eddie (Callan Mulvey, Underbelly. Rush) does not follow orders.
The only survivors are Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr) who is found by the leader of the tribe Dharrpa (real life Yolngu ceremonial leader Witiyana Marika) and Gutjuk, a small boy (Guruwak Nununggurr) who is taken by Travis to live with well-meaning missionaries Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister Claire (Caren Pistorius) who name him Tommy.
Travis leaves the police force after the massacre is covered up by his superiors and 12 years later there is a series of revengeful attacks on white people and their property led by Baywara. A white woman has been killed, and his ex-boss Moran (Jack Thomson) enlists Travis, now a bounty hunter, who recruits a reluctant Tommy (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) as a tracker. With Walter (Aaron Pedersen) they set off to capture Baywarra. Both sides in fear of retaliation.
This is Director Stephen Johnsons (Yolngu Boy) second feature film. He has long-standing links with the Yolgna and Bininj communities. 20 years in the making, after years of negotiations with indigenous communities (which can be noted in the very long list of credits at the end of the film) who allowed unprecedented access to their land.
There is no background music, just the sound of birds and insects, and songs sung in Yolngu language by Marika and his son Yirrmal. The screenplay is by Chris Anastassiades.
Steven Johnson said that he “wanted to create an exciting action-packed story for a wide audience that is both entertaining and confronting.” He has done this and the excellent performances of the cast, spectacular scenery and the brutal confrontation with Australia’s past ensures the film showing in countries other than Australia.
Spoken in English, Rirratjingu and Gunwinggu with English sub-titles.
Showing at UWA Somerville from Monday 4thJanuary to Sunday 10thJanuary.
Watch the trailer…