TL;DR – A challenging and confronting film exploring a part of Australia’s history that we don’t like to talk about.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Disclosure – I paid to see this film.
High Ground Review –
When I was growing up, every year at school we looked at the explorers that charted the coast, then the first fleet, finally the early penal colonies, and then we skip forward to Federation. At no time did we talk about the people who lived in the land before the colonists arrived, nor did we explore what happened to them as colonisation swept across the nation. The period known as the Frontier Wars was a bloody conflict about removing people from their land. In today’s review, we look at a film that explores this part of Australia’s history and all the ugliness that comes with it.
So to set the scene, in 1919 in Arnhem Land Australia, Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) is being taught the dances of his people by his uncle Baywara (Mark Garrawurra) when they stumble across two men fleeing from troopers. They were accused of killing a cow, and they are allowed to stay the night, but then they must move on. However, before than can happen, the troopers arrive at the camp, but with a plan to discuss things peacefully. They were to move in as a group and announce their arrival. They brought the local priest Braddock (Ryan Corr) to help translate and if all went wrong the commander of the troop Travis (Simon Baker) was on the high ground overlooking the settlement and could fire down if needed. Well, that was the plan, but as Travis watches the group splits up, chooses to sneak up on the group, and ignore his command that only Travis can fire first. It is a recipe for disaster, and disaster is what occurs.
Before I delve into the film’s uncomfortable sadness, I want to take a moment to champion the beauty that we see throughout the film. Our first look at the film is of Arnhem Land’s landscape as the sun sets behind a rock outcropping. The whole scene is moving as we see the beauty of nature in full array. This is the first but not the only time this will happen throughout the film. We spend a lot of the runtime in and around Kakadu and the lush landscape it provides. This also extends to all the traditional artisans that created a lot of the artefacts that were used in the film. It was good to see High Ground acknowledge their contribution and expertise in the credits, something I have not seen happen as much as it should in Australian Cinema. However, the film is also not above using that beauty to highlight the horror of what is happening. The place where Gutjuk’s family is staying is this gorgeous waterhole with a waterfall cascading down. It looks like an oasis in the middle of the countryside, and it is that beauty that is used to juxtapose the horror that happens within.
The main thrust of the story happens twelve years after that massacre where Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) the lone survivor of the massacre has been given the name Tommy and has been brought up at the local mission run by Braddock and his sister Claire (Caren Pistorius). Gutjuk’s uncle Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) also survived the attack, barley, and is now going around burning down stations and killing livestock. However, in the last attack, a white woman was killed, so Moran (Jack Thompson) the police chief in the area dragged Travis back into the fold to take Baywara out. It is here that I want to celebrate the acting in this film because everyone is giving their all and it shows. High Ground is a difficult film to watch, and I am sure it must not have been easy to film at times as well. This is especially true for the many actors where this is the first project they had worked on, but you would not know it was their first time given the quality of the film’s performances.
It is here where we get intersecting layers of revenge, violence, and cover-up. The local troopers are trying to keep the massacre covered up, so they don’t want what Baywara is doing to shine a light on their area of the world. If that does happen, both Moran and Eddy (Callan Mulvey) are quite happy to set Travis up to take the fall for them. Simultaneously, Baywara has taken all that anger at what happened to him and his family and is channelling that anger into action. We also see this contrasted in the actions of Moran and Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika), one is there looking for real justice, and the other is there to give the idea of justice platitudes and then keep doing what they are doing. All of these competing pressures pull at Gutjuk and his direction in life.
As I mentioned, this is an uncomfortable film to watch, and both the story and the production design help support this feeling throughout. There is very little use of music in this film, with the filmmakers instead using the sounds of the world around them to be the soundtrack. However, as the film progresses, many of these sounds become heightened like the sound of a snake moving across the rocks that puts you in a state of being ill at ease. The film also likes to use extreme close-ups or Dutch angles that position you the audience as if you are a part of the discussions, making you feel complicit with what happens.
From the story, you feel the weight of the world from almost the start. Everything that happened did so because two people were alleged to have killed a cow, that is it. Moran is a man that wants to document everything but then wants to hide all the unsavoury things he has done. Indeed, he has a line that fans of The Expanse will recognise and it just has awful here. We also see it in the way people respond, when some troopers come across some bodies the first thing they mention was that the men ‘were good blokes’ but we the audience know what happened before and good they were not. It is that selective framing that still occurs in the Australian media today.
While I thought that the film was good, there were a couple of small things that did hold it back for me in places. These do concern the ending, and while I will try to be vague, there may be some spoilers ahead. From a structure perspective, while I liked to see the Australian countryside and flora and fauna within, I think the film leaned too heavily on those elements in the final cut and the story’s expense. It was also a little frustrating that the film spent more time than it probably needed to do focusing on the white characters and their stories in the conclusion.
In the end, do we recommend High Ground? Well, to be fair, this is not going to be an easy film to watch. However, I think this is an important film to watch because it shines a light on the part of our history that we would like to forget and we should not shy away from the realities on which this nation was founded. If you liked High Ground, I would also recommend to you, Sweet Country.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
Have you watched High Ground?, let us know what you thought in the comments below, feel free to share this review on any of the social medias and you can follow us Here. Check out all our past reviews and articles Here, and have a happy day.
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of High Ground
Directed by – Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Story by – Chris Anastassiades, Stephen Maxwell Johnson & Witiyana Marika
Screenplay by – Chris Anastassiades
Cinematography by – Andrew Commis
Edited by – Jill Bilcock, Karryn De Cinque & Hayley Miro Browne
Production/Distribution Companies – High Ground Pictures, Screen Australia, Maxo Studios, Screen Territory, Film Victoria, Bunya Productions, Savage Films & Madman Films
Starring – Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Caren Pistorius, Ryan Corr, Aaron Pedersen, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximillian Johnson, Mark Garrawurra, Magnolia Maymuru, Guruwuk Mununggurr
Rating – Australia: MA15+;