This film is a 20 year labour of love by Stephen Johnson and the people of Arnhemland. For Johnson began working with Witiyana Marika on a film to go with Yothu Yindi’s anthem, ‘Treaty‘, and, since then, has been collecting stories from families across Arnhemland from the Carpentaria coast to Oenpelli/Gunbalanya in the West. From Yolngu to Kunwinjku. And the results in this film are all about the invasion of their lands by whitefellas in the early 20th Century.
Black and white? Yes, and No. Of course the people are one or the other (apart from Aaron Pederson’s half-caste bastard brought in from the vicious Queensland Mounted Police for no very obvious reason). But morally? Both sides have their relative goodies and baddies. But a clear white origin story lies with Donald Thomson “ famed for his association with ‘Thomson Time’ which was the legendary period in the 30s celebrated in Rolf de Heer’s wonderful ‘Ten Canoes‘ film.
Thomson knew from his experience on Cape York that a police action following killings would only provoke violence. Whereas going in alone and given time to establish himself, he could prove capable of taking Aboriginal murderers to court where the justification for their killing a Japanese fishing crew might be tested. In a sense, the Travis character in ‘High Ground‘ (Simon Baker from ‘The Mentalist‘ TV series, and director of ‘Breath‘) is part-Thomson. For he’s reluctantly involved in a police action that turns into a massacre, and then goes freelance.
Travis was a sniper in the 1st World War, where he worked with the distinctly blacker whitefella, Ambrose, played with a bristling moustache by Callan Mulvey. As Ambrose explains at one point, the sniper is the ‘nice’ fellow; the spotter picks the target and then ensures the kill is successful. White and Black. But it’s no coincidence that ‘High Ground‘ has chosen the same sorts of characters and the same post-War period as Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country‘. It’s first contact time and the whitefellas can be understandably played as PTSD victims from the War.
There’s no excuse, though for Jack Thompson’s ‘conquest not settlement’ boss cop. Playing deliciously against type, Thompson has Machiavellian plans for both Travis and the Arnhemlanders. And the most memorable scene in the film is the encounter of Black and White law as Thompson relies on the royal insignia on his pith helmet to try to browbeat Witiyana Marika’s Dharrpa “ who has his own powerful talisman in the sacred dilly bag that fellow Yolngu elders permitted him to bear publicly for this film.
Both sides call for action in the name of justice. But Dharrpa wins the argument by pointing out that his people have never had justice for the massacre 12 years earlier. Unfortunately, he doesn’t control his nephew, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) who’s leading his own revenge action, driven on by the implacable woman warrior, Gulwirri, given plenty of justification and splendidly portrayed by Esmerelda Marimowa.
She’s part of the Gunwinjku mob from the west, custodians of the Kakadu Park where so much fantastic scenery is captured by cinematographer Andrew Commis “ giving the NT Government full value for its $400,000 investment. And the strength of the Gunwinjku mob is assisted by the central appearance of Jacob Junior Nayinggul, as Gutjuk, a babe rescued from the 1919 massacre, brought up in the East Alligator River Mission, but eventually regathered by his tribal people.
Oddly, I was writing about his grandfather Jacob Nayinggul recently as one of the informants for the book about Paddy Compass Namadbara. Jacob Senior was taken under the super cleverman’s wing early to become a community leader and Manilakarra clan boss. ‘High Ground’ has serious Arnhem connections.
But Chris Anastassiades script doesn’t quite cut the muster. As a reviewer at the film’s prestigious launch in the Berlinale Festival in February commented, too often he lets the bullets do the talking. Characters’ motivations are rarely spelled out and occasionally confusing, and when most of them are left dead, there’s not much chance of asking why they acted as they did. As missionary Claire (delicately played by Caren Pistorius) sadly watches Gutjuk depart with Gulwirri at the end, I was left to wonder whether she was weeping as the women who’d ‘brung ‘im up’ for 12 years, or whether there was just a touch of womanly passion for the handsome young blackfella.
More importantly, was Travis’s fate really justified by Gutjuk’s belief that he’d played a vital part in the 1919 massacre of his family, when it was clear in my memory that Travis had tried to control that event from the high ground. But perhaps the whole point of that title for the film was the lesson that in Arnhemland, you don’t necessarily control anything from the ‘High Ground‘!
‘High Ground‘s first appearance in Sydney is as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s ‘Summer Season’ tomorrow at 3.30pm in the State Theatre. After that, it releases nationally on Thursday 28th January. There are some previews this weekend.