The emerging Indigenous Australian New Wave film movement has seen two monumental films about Indigenous Australian history written and told from non-Indigenous perspectives: Jennifer Kent’s haunting The Nightingale, and Stephen Johnson’s celebrated new film, High Ground. Filmed on Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, High Ground is a frightfully tense Meat Pie Western that is as consistently breathtaking with its natural vistas as it is deeply unsettling with its traumatic depiction of White inflicted tragedy upon Indigenous Australians. Just like The Nightingale, this is an undeniable benchmark for Australian cinema.
High Ground’s pedigree precedes it, with a cast established with an array of Australian screen icons. From the legendary Jack Thompson, to the always impressive Ryan Corr, the emerging brilliance of Caren Pistorius, with a stunning lead turn from Simon Baker, who is confidently supported by Callan Mulvey, and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul, this catalogue of actors is all class. Baker takes co-lead as Travis, an ANZAC sniper turned policeman of the outback who is entrusted with implementing the law of the White man on Indigenous land – a place which is run by its own laws and traditions. Travis is part of a troop of bullish and cocksure White policemen who are seeking out an Indigenous person who stole a cow. From the high ground above the Aboriginal camp Travis watches as his fellow policemen brutally slaughter the Indigenous tribe. There was never any chance of their vocalised civility playing out, these men always intended to kill the tribe, outlaying the feverishly genocidal mindset that has them wanting to rid Australia of all Indigenous folk.
Skipping forward twelve years after the massacre, High Ground picks up with the narrative of the massacres two survivors. Gutjuk (Nayinggul), who was a young boy at the time of the assault, is now a man growing up in a Christian mission. He is deeply skeptical of the White man who calls him ‘boy’ and ‘friend,’ yet is tied to their camp as they destroyed his family. Then there’s Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s Uncle, a vengeance-minded man who has forged a new tribe; one that seeks out to eradicate the White settlements from Arnhem land, and infuriates Moran (Jack Thompson) and his soldier brethren in the process. From here a war emerges between the two parties fueled by racism on one side and self-preservation on the other.
The landscape erupts from the soil into a work of overwhelming beauty. It is the picture postcard image of Australia that we send to our international friends and family leading them to believe that this is what all of this grand continent looks like. The cinematography from Andrew Commis manages to capture the grandeur of the land in a breathtaking manner, contradicting the unsteady shaky-cam that’s employed during the white-knuckle, violent battle sequences. The camerawork is not always effective as it often pulls attention to itself rather than allowing the film to wash over the viewer; but when it’s at its best it’s some of the finest in modern Australian cinema. A particularly spectacular sequence where Travis shows Gutjuk how to shoot a gun presents the endless horizon of Arnhem land as a wondrous eden, untouched by civilisation and disrupted by the trauma of modernity.
High Ground moves at a breakneck speed through intense sequence after intense sequence, feverishly denying the audience a moment to catch their breath. Jacob Junior Nayinggul grounds the film with a searing performance that confirms his place as a powerful actor on the rise. Where High Ground teases out its moral complexities is within the relationship between Gutjuk and Travis. Gutjuk is a man driven by horrifying circumstance, thrust into a reality that he is almost powerless to escape from. Travis, on the other hand, is a man driven by a moral code and a respect for the Indigenous people living on the land. Through Simon Baker’s ever observant eyes, we see a figure who wishes to divine a harmonious relationship between the two worlds, but because of the catastrophic mindset of the Crown-led police force, that unity will never come.
As the White audience entry point, Travis is a relatable figure, especially in the manner he employs his desire to work alongside Gutjuk and his tribe to create a united ‘civilisation’. Yet, he is also a damning reflection of ourselves, highlighting the clouded perspective of authority that White Australian culture is rife with. As is consistently the case, we cannot see an Australia without our presence in it, especially one where Anglocentric culture is not the dominant force, and it’s this mindset that shows that Travis will never be a harmonious presence within the Indigenous culture of Arnhem Land.
Writer Chris Anastassiades meticulously weaves in a sub-narrative of communal Christianity, presenting a silently damning depiction of the manner that Christian missions across Australia employed religion to effectively whitewash Indigenous culture out of their own lives. The ever brilliant Caren Pistorius once again asserts herself as a star on the rise with a subdued performance as Claire, an optimistic and caustically collaborative force who, alongside her priest brother Braddock (Ryan Corr), see herself as the essential glue to bond the two cultures together. Claire has at least taken the steps to understanding and learning the language of the land, and while it’s never explicit, Pistorius does imbue Claire with a keen appreciation of local culture, one that suggests that she carries a level of guilt and ownership for her role in the transformation of Indigenous culture.
This active erasure of 60,000 years of continuous culture is presented in a maudlin, matter-of-fact manner, with stolen tribes commuted into the Christian camp. A bodily shame is applied as each person is adorned in ‘civilian’ clothing that covers and removes their Indigenous identity, applying a homogenous White identity to each of them. As they are taught English and scripture in a makeshift church that will eventually burn with the fury of a thousand lost souls, High Ground paints out a picture of the trauma to come with the Stolen Generation.
The manner which this history is outlaid ensures that High Ground is a desperately essential film to witness and take in. This is a film steeped in historical relevance – with its multiple depictions of fictionalised versions of the far too plentiful genocidal massacres inflicted upon the First Nations people of this land we call Australia, making it one of the relatively few Australian films to depict the heinous actions of White Australians in such a manner. There is something to be said for exploring this history on film, especially given how many massacres occurred around Australia, but there’s no denying that director Stephen Johnson’s taut and violent film arrives at an interesting point in the Australian film landscape.
Johnson’s previous effort, the superb Yolngu Boy, honoured his formative years in the Northern Territory. The film presented a considered story of Indigenous kids growing up within a world of duality; the modern White Australia, and the traditional Indigenous Australia. His keen interest in the Australian history of is further evidenced within High Ground where he echoes the groundwork of iconic Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton and his masterpiece, Sweet Country. In many ways, High Ground is the natural evolution of the filmic output of Bunya Productions (arguably Australia’s finest production company), where lead producers David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin and co continually bring together some of the finest talents in the Australian film industry to make iconic Australian films and television.
While masters like Rachel Perkins, Tracey Moffatt, and Ivan Sen, had all been consistently working in Australian cinema for years prior to Samson and Delilah, it was Warwick Thornton’s Camera d’Or (Golden Camera Award for Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival) winning 2009 film that effectively kickstarted the Indigenous Australian New Wave of film. Samson and Delilah’s overwhelming success and market penetration came alongside Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae, and together they helped usher in the arrival of films like Mystery Road, The Sapphires, and Top End Wedding, all showcasing the breadth of talent that existed within Australian Indigenous directors.
As such, High Ground comes at a time where the Indigenous Australian New Wave is at a turning point. As more Indigenous filmmakers are emerging, we’re witnessing a change in the Indigenous stories that are told, with many showing narratives that are no longer defined by the tragedy that has become synonymous in the public eye of what it means to be an Indigenous Australian. And for those narratives that do explore the rampant inequality and injustice that thrives within Australia’s present and history, they are being told with Indigenous filmmakers and writers behind the screen, guiding and navigating these stories from a lived-in perspective, stripping away the gaze of being a mere emotional-tourist trip through a different culture into being an informed perspective of what centuries of persecution looks like. While High Ground was made with extensive community consultation and the guidance and approval of countless Indigenous voices, it is still one written and directed from a non-Indigenous perspective.
This is not to discount the work of non-Indigenous directors crafting stellar Indigenous focused stories – after all, films like Mad Bastards and Charlie’s Country have shown how deeply empathetic and reflective of the Indigenous experience narratives written or directed from a non-Indigenous perspective can be – but rather to highlight that Australia is currently witnessing a boom of creativity from Indigenous filmmakers. I’m well aware of the optics of a White writer critiquing an Indigenous narrative film and highlighting the non-Indigenous creative team behind it, but I want to stress that I’m doing so to question that if the Australian film industry is serious about seeking out greater diversity amongst the creative teams on films and television, then they also need to strengthen the ability for Indigenous voices to tell their own stories on screen.
In one of the many memorable moments in High Ground, Callan Mulvey’s haunting Eddy spits the phrase ‘you can’t share a country’, uttering it as a hate-filled barb intending to further divide the land. It’s that line that rings through my mind as I write this review, with White critics and filmmakers often being the town-criers bemoaning the reality that ‘anyone should be able to write a story’, or as in the case of transgender stories, ‘it’s called acting’, all the while neglecting the need for community consultation and input to create authentic and respectful narratives. Eddy’s perspective highlights how dominant the White voice is in Western society, a point that is echoed by Jack Thompson’s King-adoring police officer as he utters a prophetic line while he sits for a photograph alongside the Indigenous men that he so eagerly wishes to remove from the land: “it is a responsibility of those who make history to record it.”
The legacy of White Australia is akin to that of an introduced species like the Cane Toad, brought to correct something upon the land that never needed correcting in the first place. Australia’s history has been documented by these same Australians, with the narrative being controlled through a White lens. What sets High Ground apart from films that have tokenistic portrayals of Indigenous Australians is that community informed approach to the narrative.
I’m not saying we’re at an impasse here, but rather, I’m pondering aloud in this review the value of and need for representation on film and behind the scenes. There is absolutely no denying that the narrative of High Ground is vital and important, especially given how infrequently these tragedies have been depicted on film, but I can’t help but ask whether non-Indigenous filmmakers are the right voices to tell these stories. Writer Chris Anastassiades positively excels at crafting a respectful narrative that honours the legacy of the cruelly slain First Nations people, even going so far as to critique the White-saviour trope with Simon Baker’s Travis (allowing Baker to give a career best performance).
However, as Australian cinema seeks to diversify its creative forces, and as such, the hunger and desire for Indigenous stories naturally increases, there needs to be a grander choice applied when it comes to deciding who gets to tell Indigenous stories. Yes, High Ground is a stunning film that deserves every accolade it gets, and Stephen Johnson’s direction carries the echoes of Western-genre greats like John Ford and, from a modern stance, the Coen Brothers, but given how much of Australian cinema has been driven by non-Indigenous voices, isn’t it time that they are able to tell their history on screen?
Additionally, why is it that narratives or genres that are steeped in trauma celebrated more than those that skew away from the tragic past of Indigenous Australia? While The Nightingale has its place in Australian cinema as a harrowing work of brilliance, I can’t help but ask why a more empathetic and progressive film like Top End Wedding is relegated to being ‘basic genre fare’? Wayne Blair’s raucous delight of a film displayed an urgent sense of revitalisation for a dormant genre: the romantic comedy. With Miranda Tapsell’s luminous smile, this feel-good film focused on love and hope, rather than the increasingly trope-becoming tragedy of other Indigenous films. And, on the television front, Elaine Crombie and Nakkiah Lui’s uproarious Kiki and Kitty sits comfortably alongside Steven Oliver’s iconic droll delivery of the word ‘slut’ in Black Comedy as being some of the finest Indigenous comedy in Australia. Through these Indigenous artists, they are presenting a future for Australian culture that is a hopeful one.
And yet, as I write this, Meyne Wyatt’s echoing line from his powerful Q&A monologue in 2020 from his play City of Gold rings through my mind:
“How are we to move forward if we dwell on the past?” That’s your privilege.
That is my privilege, and one that shows that I rightly do not have the lived-in experience to comment on how and what Indigenous stories are told on screen. Again, I recognise the problematic nature of a White Australian like myself discussing this in a review for a film as good as High Ground is, especially given the extreme lack of diversity within the Australian film criticism circles, however it’s a point that I would urge you, the reader, to ruminate on. Again, Australian cinema is witnessing a brilliant new wave of Indigenous voices who are utilising the artform to assert the identity of Indigenous Australia on film; whether that be by focusing on historical events steeped in tragedy, or highlighting a more positive, hopeful future, at least these voices are purely Indigenous.
I want to close this review by reminding you that High Ground is an overwhelming achievement of cinematic brilliance. It continues the legacy of Sweet Country by exposing the horrifying actions of White Australians, all the while reminding viewers the place in Australian history that these devastating massacres have. For other White Australian’s, it is important that we recognise that sovereignty has never been ceded, with the scars of the past still open and ringing with pain for Indigenous Australians today. While it is easy to sit there and watch these films and feel like you’ve made a difference, that in itself is a heightened realisation of White privilege, and it is clearly not enough. It is equally important to seek out and listen to Indigenous voices, and hear their calls for change and diversity within Australia, and to assist in implementing said change through organisations like Pay the Rentor IndigenousX.
Director: Stephen Johnson
Cast: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey
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