“High Ground” (2020)
Running Time: 104 minutes
Written by: Chris Anastassiades
Directed by: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Featuring: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Caren Pistorius, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximillian Johnson and Jack Thompson
Moran: “They are calling them the wild mob, brought together by baywara.”
Released recently on Blu-ray and DVD is the Australian film “High Ground” (2020) that delves into the Colonial past offering viewers a micro look at a location and event that shows just how what the English thought of the indigenous peoples as well as what justice looked like for in terms of horrific crimes that are still around the world today, there are many themes to this film but one I took away was that in parts of the world we have not come very far at all.
“High Ground” is the latest in what Australians call Meat Pie Western, also known as Australian Western or Kangaroo Western, is a broad genre of Western-style films or TV series set in the Australian outback or ‘the bush’. This sub-genre of film has been around for decades but in the past decade or so they have become much more common especially in terms of addressing Colonialism as well the effects this has had on Aboriginals and the ongoing effects, this film is definitely set in the past but its repercussions, even based on a fictional incident can be seen today in very real historical incidents. In fact there there were many massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by settlers following the colonisation of Australia by the British Empire, in 1788, most were perpetrated as summary and indiscriminate punishment for the killing of settlers or the theft and destruction of livestock.
The film is set around a sniper, Travis, after fighting in World War I he is now a policeman in northern Australia, he loses control of an operation that results in the massacre of an Aboriginal Australian tribe in 1919. After his superiors insist on burying the truth, Travis leaves in disgust, only to be forced back twelve years later to hunt down Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior whose attacks on new settlers are causing havoc. When Travis recruits mission-raised Gutjuk, the only known massacre survivor, as his tracker, the truth of the past is revealed and Travis becomes the hunted. From here the film expands into what is the ‘present’ for the characters and becomes something of a revenge story albeit with devastating outcomes for all those involved.
The film has been directed by Stephen Johnson who is relatively experienced and has proven a very good choice for a film that is not only part of a genre with plenty of examples to show but has also been made on a small budget with limited locales. However in saying this Johnson uses his locations very well with some having grand vistas but others feeling claustrophobic juxtaposing the two in any given situation which is a great narrative tool to use. For a country that is massive it is surprising how closed in it feels. possibly because so much seems to be arid and lifeless which of course it is not. We see from the outset that the indigenous peoples have a Universal way of looking at life and death whereas the Colonials are rigid and believe in very artificial people to worship, if anything the Aboriginals have a far reaching outlook that belies the way they live.
Led by the performances of Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Simon Baker, who both inhabit their roles no matter who these people really are. Both are misunderstood taking part in lives they have no real joy for which of course leads them to decisions neither want to make but are forced into because of circumstance and the idea of what life means as well as revenge and justice. Baker who has been a mainstay on television seems to want to make movies in Australia trying to tell Australian stories and for the most part has succeeded. In contrast this is Nayinggul’s first role and judging by the results he has a future in the medium. One other highlight are the always great Aaron Pedersen and Jack Thomson who play relatively small but integral parts, both show why they are two of the best character actors in Australia at the current time.
Whilst “High Ground” is a work of fiction there are chilling similarities to real life which can be found by doing some pretty basic research, I am not going to compare them here that would lessen the value of real life. What this film does is to show some very basic truths that are evident today. They are that there are very real negative effects of Colonialism, the idea of the savage to be modernised, the idea of people being removed from their own. authorities, what revenge means and what justice looks like to very different groups of others, these are the most obvious ones and they should inspire debate about what should be done in today’s world to offer justice to those that have suffered.
I recommend this film highly it is a must watch from its direction through to the narrative, story and performances, it has a great ending which is both justified and moving, do yourself a favour get it now.