Colonial history in the outback
Like the acclaimed and applauded Sweet Country and The Nightingale, Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s potent outback western High Ground interrogates the country’s colonial history.
By Sarah Ward
In High Ground’s opening frames, one of Kakadu National Park’s soaring rock formations towers over the scrub-lined red earth below. It cuts an imposing image, as well as a familiar one. When Australian filmmakers interrogate the lingering impact of the country’s colonial past and its impact upon the nation’s Indigenous population, the continent’s distinctive landscape is never far from view.
Making his first feature since 2001’s Yolngu Boy, director Stephen Maxwell Johnson adds his sophomore film to a growing list of such probing recent big-screen re-assessments of history. High Ground proudly stands beside Sweet Country and The Nightingale, with their period-set explorations of early Aussie life. It slots alongside the Mystery Road franchise, which gives the country’s treatment of its First Peoples a modern context. And, it sits next to sports documentaries The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream, about the abhorrent treatment of Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes due to the colour of his skin.
Meet Australian cinema’s most important genre - one that, as it keeps blazing a trail across screens, will only grow in its potency. Set in 1919 and 1931, High Ground is an outback western that makes strong use of the land and follows a conflict-driven storyline; however, first and foremost, it’s the latest example of an ongoing cinematic reckoning that lays bare the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants over more than two centuries.
Accordingly, much of High Ground seems familiar as it follows a clash between white lawmen and the Aboriginal community. On what’s supposed to be a peaceful Arnhem Land expedition, almost an entire tribe is massacred on the watch of ex-World War I sniper Travis (Simon Baker). Young survivor Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) is adopted by missionaries, while a disgusted Travis walks away from the force. But 12 years later, Gutjuk’s uncle Baywarra (Sean Mununggur) returns for revenge. Given little choice by his ex-boss (Jack Thompson), Travis and the now-adult Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) are called in to track him.
Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggulin | © High Ground Picture The us-versus-them mentality, the heartbreaking violence, the needless dominance of Australia’s settlers over its Indigenous populace — all are accounted for here, as they always are in this flourishing genre. But, with screenwriter Chris Anastassiades, Johnson finds power in repetition. These battles kept happening, as the film depicts. Today, in a different way, the power imbalance remains. To stress these points, High Ground purposefully serves up a story that feels like it has been seen before, and just as decisively stages several clashes that play like duplication.
The weight of history
Johnson’s film is stunning to look at, filled as it is with sprawling outback sights. It’s also immersive acoustically, flitting between Yolngu songs and birdsong. Especially from the stoic Baker and revelatory first-timer Nayinggul, it’s impressively performed — and, in balancing their characters’ stories, it’s both nuanced and sensitive.But much of High Ground’s weight, heft and impact is cumulative, too - because this grim reality of Australia’s history, and the sheer number of stories like this, will never prove anything less than devastating.