Listen: Aboriginal elder Witiyana Marika and 'High Ground' director Stephen Johnson on Australia's painful history
The relationship between Australia’s First Nations people, and those that settled here, is a complex one. At times it’s involved hardship and trauma, and also hope and possibility.
Starring Simon Baker (The Mentalist, Breath) and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul, High Ground contemplates missed opportunities to unify white settlers and Australia’s Indigenous population in the early 1900s.
The movie follows Travis (Simon Baker), a former World War I sniper now policeman in northern Australia, who loses control of an operation that results in the massacre of an Aboriginal tribe. Disgusted by how his superiors covered up the failed mission, Travis leaves the police camp, only to return years later to help massacre-survivor Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) track down an Aboriginal warrior who’s savagely avenging the death of his family.
High Ground is an emotive and confronting watch. Early scenes depicting the violence against the tribal community highlight the imbalance of power between a group armed with spears and wit, and another armed with guns and soldiers. Police commander Moran (Jack Thompson) believes he’s driving progress as he overthrows the locals with unchanging dedication to his English counterparts, but his intentions come off as ignorant and manipulative.
The work of the police officers is set alongside a Christian mission, who are there to guide and support the local community, but at times use their faith as validation to mistreatment others. The mission has its heroes, but the instances of intolerance are difficult viewing for a Jesus-following ticket holder who hates to think their religious views could play a part in tragedy unfolding.
High Ground director Stephen Johnson told Hope 103.2, “We’re all grappling with our history and what happened, and [asking] ‘How we best reconcile? How do we understand? How do we learn?’ and ‘How do we come together as a nation?’”
One of the ways High Ground does that is to take the true events of our history and look at them through a different lens.
“[High Ground] is a both-ways film that’s sharing ideas and creating a bridge of understanding between people,” Stephen said. “…It’s about healing.”
Founding member of Yothu Yindi and Aboriginal elder Witiyana Marika stars as Grandfather Dharrpa in the film, and told Hope 103.2 reflecting on the past can be painful.
With family of his own killed in tribal massacres, Witiyana hasn’t always found occasions like NAIDOC Week and Australia Day easy, but said, “I believe we should just celebrate the beauty of this land and people.”
“I’m just hoping for a better future and [to] reconcile and move on as one people, one nation.” – Aboriginal elder Witiyana Marika
Stephen added that acknowledging our past and the First Nations people isn’t “about a day”.
“It’s really about a consciousness and acceptance. We have the oldest living culture here in this country – that’s something we all as humans are connected in a way,” he said.
“You know we’ve become divided as human beings across the globe, but to have that connection that runs so deep here in this country surely it’s something we should be tapping into and respecting and learning from and embracing as part of our identity.”
High Ground is in cinemas now. Listen to Laura’s full interview with Stephen Johnson and Witiyana Marika in the player above.