High Ground MA, 105 minutes, 5 stars
High Ground has been a long time in the making. Twenty years, the filmmakers say. People like David Gulpilil were once attached to the project. It premiered in Berlin just before COVID-19 hit, then had to wait out the year as the cinema release stalled.
It is well worth the wait. The film is a collaboration between Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land and top film creatives brought together under the direction of Stephen Maxwell Johnson, a filmmaker who hails from the Top End.
The immensity of the controversial task at hand - a drama set during the frontier wars of the 1930s - could have robbed it of essential dramatic tension, of narrative drive. A couple of the actors do overplay their hand but the film's objectives in depicting both Indigenous and settler points of view is achieved, overall.
Furthermore, High Ground is rich with moments of sensuous beauty and power. Not since Rolf de Heer's memorable Ten Canoes of 2006 have we been so completely immersed among the magpie geese, the paperbark eucalypts, the pandanus and the crocodiles of Arnhem Land.
There is irreverent humour too. The screenplay is the work of Chris Anastassiades. He was the screenwriter for Johnson's first film, Yolngu Boy, in 2001, and is also responsible for The Wog Boy and other comedic adventures.
Andrew Commis (Babyteeth, Beautiful Kate) wields the camera, BAFTA and Oscar-nominated editor Jill Bilcock has presided in the editing suite. Talent in front of camera includes the familiar faces of Aaron Pedersen and Simon Baker. Jack Thompson is there too.
At the same time, High Ground takes a risk with a young unknown in a lead role. Jacob Junior Nayinggull, who plays opposite international star Baker, is surely set to become the new Gulpilil. This is the first feature film for the young man, who works as a ranger in East Arnhem Land. Graceful in his movements, a natural on horseback, nuanced in his facial expressions and with a beautiful, strong face, Nayinggull is a tremendous find.
The film's opening sequences at a secluded waterhole set the tragic events in train. A group of Aboriginals is being scoped by a distant sniper. The subsequent police raid is bungled, leaving many dead and one child orphaned. Travis (Baker), from the raiding party, hands the boy over to Christian missionaries.
The narrative then jumps 12 years to 1931. It has relocated to the East Alligator River area, where Gutjuk (Nayinggull now in the role) has been brought up by Father Braddock (Ryan Corr) and his sister, Claire (Caren Pistorius).
Travis comes back into the young man's life when the authorities instruct the former policeman-turned-bounty hunter to track down a renegade mob of Aborigines. They are led by Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), an uncle of Gutjuk's who also survived the family massacre. Gutjuk will be used as "bait" to bring in Baywara.
The scene that speaks to the title takes place on the summit of a rocky outcrop with a 360-degree view of the floodplains, savanna and sandstone tors of Kakadu. We hear Gutjuk getting instructions on how to shoot from former World War I sniper Travis. To occupy the high ground means you control everything, it's what you want to aim for, he says, ever invoking the language of war. The expression, of course, need not be applied in this sense, and invites other interpretations.
Whose justice will Baywara face if he is captured? Gutjuk's grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika, co-founder of the breakout Indigenous rock band, Yothu Yindi) lends his dignity and presence to the scenes that involve a fierce debate about the law. Should First Nation or Balanda (white man) law apply to Baywara?
Johnson is likely better known for his direction of Yothu Yindi music clips than he ever was for his first fiction feature, Yolngu Boy. High Ground will surely change all that. His new film, more outback western than thriller, is more arthouse than genre, despite his intentions. It is intelligently written, brutally honest, beautifully staged and a stunning reminder of the magnificence of the natural world.