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High Ground - Film Review

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by Mistress of Culture Vultures (subscribe)
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Published January 16th 2021
‘From the High Ground you can see and control everything’
Image Courtesy of Madman Entertainment Pty. Ltd

Receiving acclaim at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), High Ground is a film about the 'land wars' between the Aboriginal custodians and white colonialists in Arnhem Land written by Chris Anastassiades and directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson.

Distributed by Madman Entertainment, High Ground will officially launch on 26 January in Palace Cinemas across Australia.

The film opens with spectacular panoramic shots of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and zooms in to a beautiful waterhole, an idyllic oasis like the 'Garden of Eden'. This paradise is shot on location in Kakadu National Park in Jabiru, home of magical waterholes, native bush plums, magpie geese, green ants, crocodile, snakes, sea eagles and the Bininj and Mungguy people, living here for over 60,000 years before white colonisation.

We meet an Aboriginal child 'Young Gutjuk' (Guruwuk Mununggurr), spear hunting wallaby in the bush with his Uncle Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) and his father, and learning traditional techniques to survive in this environment. Young Gutjuk appears only around five or six years old and enjoys spending time with his Uncle Baywara who teaches him song, dance, story, and language in the towering gorges around the waterhole, and preparing him for initiation and other customary rites of passage.

Image Courtesy of Madman Entertainment Pty. Ltd

It is 1919, over 100 hundred years since white colonisation, and 18 years after Australia has federated. Travis (Simon Baker) and have returned from fighting in World War I and are now employed as police in the territory.

Meanwhile, Young Gutjuk's extended family gather around a billabong, mothers and aunties nursing children, shaded in grass woven huts or swimming and men cooking and keeping watch. When a warning is raised that 'white men are coming' Young Gutjuk joins his mother Wak Wak (Magnolia Maymuru) in the waterhole to hide beneath the waterlilies.

Up on the' high ground' we see Travis (Simon Baker), a returned sniper from World War I surveys the waterhole with his gun. He sees the surprise invasion of his fellow policeman shooting the whole family dead. By the time Grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) arrives, Young Gutjuk has been taken by Travis, to a Catholic mission in East Arnhem where he is raised as 'Tommy' by Claire (Caren Pistorius) and her priest brother (Ryan Corr).

After many years living in the mission, Tommy/Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) learns that the white police are plotting to kill the leader of the 'Wild Mob', an Aboriginal gang who have been setting other mission stations on fire, and most recently killed a white woman.

Gutjuk hears the leader of the mob is 'Baywara' and realises it could be his Uncle, who was left for dead at the waterhole, all those years ago.

On seeing the change in Tommy, Travis takes him under his wing to the 'High Ground' to teach him white man 'snipe and shoot' survival skills.

Image Courtesy of Madman Entertainment Pty. Ltd

Locked between two cultures – one ancient and one colonial, Gutjuk's is conflicted, caught between his original family and mission family and two opposing cultures. Who can he trust? Who must he protect? Which 'lore' or 'law' must he obey?

Gutjuk feels called to seek out his Uncle Baywara and achieve a peaceful outcome to the land wars by putting his faith in Travis, to protect his Uncle from being arrested and killed by the police. However, Travis colleague Eddy (Callan Mulvey) does not trust Gutjuk to be loyal to the mission and follows him.

Gutjuk returns with his family Grandfather Dharrpa, Baywara and the lead female warrior Gulwirri (Esmerelda Marimowa) to meet with Moran (Jack Thompson) who represents the Crown.

Despite Moran's 'agreement' with Grandfather Dharrpa, Eddy rallies his men to follow Gutjuk and the 'Wild Mob' using 'Walter' a half-caste Aboriginal tracker from Queensland to guide him to their location. Walter represents another person who is displaced between Aboriginal and white culture.

The unsung heroines of this story are Gulwirri and Claire, both women, caught in this Darwinian tale of 'survival of the fittest' amongst the patriarchal power constructs they experience. Clearly, Gulwirri's story is one of 'self-determination' to protect and preserve her own people, and Claire whilst having a maternal connection to Tommy (Gutjuk), and respect for Aboriginal people, is caught between the values of the church, colonialism, and survival in the bush.

This is an important film which reveals the stories of this early period of colonialism in Australia, from the Aboriginal perspective, which is evident from the large crew of Aboriginal actors and producers involved in making this film. The intimate footage of insects and animals is worthy of a David Attenborough award and the aerial footage is spectacular and the envy of any person who has not yet travelled to Arnhem Land.

The fight for land and sovereignty continues today against the romanticism of the landscape of Arnhem Land and other sacred Aboriginal lands in Australia. There are many stories left untold, and hopefully films like High Ground continue to be made, to ensure those stories are told and we learn from them.

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*Mistress of Culture Vultures was invited as a guest
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Why? See the story of the land wars through the eyes of an Aboriginal child
Where: Palace Cinemas
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