High Ground


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

High Ground
"Taking natural sounds from the landscape, Chris Goodes has constructed a soundscape which shifts perfectly with the mood of the film, contributing to the sense of the balance of power and who is or is not an outsider."

Recently the Australian western has been enjoying a new lease of life thanks to stories which include or even centre the perspectives of indigenous people, after a century of treating them like scenery. Does this risk creating a new rigid form in which they re always good and the white people who come into contact with them are always bad? It's not clear that this is actually happening, but High Ground represents an early attempt to complicate emerging narratives, with troubled characters in both groups. Whilst the story that emerges is ultimately pretty routine stuff, one should not underestimate the contribution that each one of this new generation of films makes to rebalancing the way that Australians think about their history, nor how refreshing it is for viewers in any location to access a different perspective.

The film opens with a massacre. There are well over a hundred such incidents recorded in the history of the period and one can only guess at how many went unrecorded. One boy survives, rescued by a priest and taken back to the local white settlement to be raised by the priest's sister, Claire (Caren Pistorius). This is Gutjuk (played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul in his teenage years), whom they name Tommy - a reminder of how many Aborigine children would have their names taken from them in years to come, when the government began its 'adoption' policy and started deliberately kidnapping them to place them with white families. Claire is genuinely kind and well meaning but she cannot make him feel like a part of a society where he is casually demeaned by white people on a daily basis. He doesn't forget his origins and as he gets older he seeks out his original family.

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The central plot focuses on Gutjuk's uncle, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), who also survived the massacre after being left for dead, and who has responded to the experience (and perhaps others) by raiding and burning settlements in an apparent effort to drive the white people from his land. When a white woman dies in one of these attacks, tension between the two communities reaches boiling point. Gutjuk agrees to set out with Travis (Simon Baker), a soldiers involved in the original incident who has since made an effort to atone. If they can find Baywara quickly, they might persuade him to surrender and prevent further mass violence - but they're not the only ones on his trail, and Gutjuk is conflicted about his loyalties.

Although the majority of its producers are white, High Ground was made in close collaboration with Aboriginal communities and does a good job of representing its Aboriginal tribe as culturally sophisticated and politically savvy, easily a match for the whites in everything except strength of arms. Baywara is clearly suffering from the effects of trauma but his choices are still afforded depth and he is clearly still a rational person, as is Gulwirri (Esmerelda Marimowa), the young woman Gutjuk takes an interest in, whose experiences at the hands of white men have prompted her to become fiercely defensive. Witiyana Marika, who also produced, brings a humour and sharp intelligence to his tribal leader which invite viewers to connect regardless of their own background.

The white characters here are less well drawn. Aside from Travis and Claire, they are mostly one-note, with Callan Mulvey's Eddy a two dimensional villain. This is unfortunate because High Ground is, ultimately, a character-driven film. There's not much complexity to the plot and - in keeping with the traditions of the genre - little sense of change. This is not to say that the drama lacks force, but it doesn't hit home as strongly as it ought to, with a failure to build on the promise of early scenes.

One thing that really does deserve high praise here is the sound editing. Taking natural sounds from the landscape, Chris Goodes has constructed a soundscape which shifts perfectly with the mood of the film, contributing to the sense of the balance of power and who is or is not an outsider. Its immersive effect brings depth to the drama and ensures that we never cease to be aware of the real source of conflict, the land itself.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2021
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The sole survivor of a massacre as a child, Gutjuk is recruited 12 years later to hunt for a violent Aboriginal warrior.

Director: Stephen Johnson

Writer: Stephen Johnson, David Jowsey, Wityana Marika, Maggie Miles, Greer Simpkin

Starring: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Jack Thompson, Callan Mulvey, Caren Pistorius, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika

Year: 2020

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Australia


Cheltenham 2021

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