King brown snakes, crocodiles and buffaloes. Mud, lightning storms and the blistering sun.
After two decades in the making, the seven-week Arnhem Land shoot of High Ground was never going to be easy.
Filmed in some of the most remote parts of Australia, in some of the most challenging conditions, it captures the magnificent landscapes of this unforgiving country.
“It’s pretty wild and this is the beauty,” actor Simon Baker recalled of his experiences to news.com.au. “This is the metaphor of the film, and the making of the film, is that it’s not comfortable. It’s amazing and uncomfortable and beautiful.
“It doesn’t have to be a good experience or a bad experience. There were moments when we wanted to throttle each other and you work through it together, and you go through that process and you come out the other side and it’s like love.
“That’s the journey.”
Beautiful and uncomfortable are two apt words to describe High Ground , a transfixing Australian drama directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson set in Arnhem Land after World War I, it’s the story of a massacre of an Indigenous tribe by white Northern Territory policeman.
Baker plays one of the policemen, Travis, who tried to stop the indiscriminate killing and is later blackmailed into hunting down one of the vengeance-seeking survivors of the massacre.
The massacre scene is visceral, violent and deeply upsetting. But Johnson said the point is to confront the audience, not to sidestep the traumas of Australia’s history.
“We can’t let angst get in the way, we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn, and we’ve got to become more vulnerable if we’re going to truly reconcile and confront our history and open our hearts to it,” Johnson said.
Baker agreed, “It’s unapologetic in the sense that it’s like ‘let’s go there’. Let’s not tiptoe around the outside, let’s go straight in here and talk about it and feel uncomfortable, and live with how uncomfortable it is. And then people will start to heal.”
Australia’s history has become a flashpoint in national debate around Indigenous recognition, and films such as High Ground could serve as another plank with which to think about how the national identity is rooted in violence.
And Baker’s description of the shoot, working through it together, suggests a way forward for the national grappling of Australia’s history and what it could mean for Australia’s future – something that reaches fever pitch annually around January 26, the meaning of the national holiday increasingly contentious.
High Ground is technically a fictional tale, the screenplay by Chris Anastassiades drawn from a story by Anastassiades, Johnson and Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika. But within the fiction is truth – High Ground is inspired by stories Marika grew up with.
“I was told by my father as I was growing up,” Marika said. “It’s in our blood. They heard it, they saw it where it happened. And passed it on to generations and generations.”
As well as serving as a producer and senior cultural adviser, Marika also stars in the film as Grandfather Dharrpa, a Yolngu tribal elder. He and Johnson had worked with the late Dr M. Yunupingu on the story and script for High Ground for many years, all part of the 20-year process to bring the story to screen.
The care to be culturally inclusive is evident in the scroll of the end credits, where scores of Indigenous names are etched on the screen, acknowledged for their involvement in the production.
This included all the different clans who gave their blessing for High Ground to film on their country, in remote and sacred spaces. It was a complex process negotiated by Marika.
Johnson, who grew up in the Northern Territory and previously made Yolngu Boy, said: “We travelled together for many, many years, sitting with elders and leaders right across our land, researching materials, everything from the stone spears to the dilly bags.
“Everything that appears in the film was culturally correct and the right people were identified who made those things, often very old women or old men. The beautiful thing about the process was a lot of young people became involved in watching these things being made and created from the past. So, it almost like a bit of cultural revival.”
The dilly bag Marika’s character wears in the cultural ceremony was particularly special, a sacred piece from his family.
That spirit of coming together, of the process being symbolic of the film’s story was also playing out through High Ground’s two lead characters, Travis and Gutjuk, the latter a young Indigenous man who also survived the massacre as a child and was raised in a Christian mission for 12 years after he was discovered hiding in the reeds by Travis.
Gutjuk was portrayed by Jacob Junior Nayinggul, a newcomer who was a ranger in Gunbalanya community. Nayinggul had a strong presence, something Johnson noticed immediately.
Johnson convinced him to do a screen test and the director said Nayinggul “instantly connected” the story of High Ground to “the stories he’s heard from his grandfather about massacres”.
“He was just being himself in a lot of ways and connecting to his own story,” Johnson said. “And that was alive, it was visceral and harrowing.
“What Simon and Jacob achieve as characters in this film is quite extraordinary. It’s beautiful because it’s so real because there was a real-life friendship that was playing out off-screen between Simon and Jacob, and it was like what was taking place on screen.
“Here was this young man out of the community meeting a movie star, and he’d never acted before in his life.
“Simon had never really been on country in that part of the world before. And it was like we were all living the reality of the moment in lots of ways too. We were in this place, there was a true cultural exchange taking place, a coming together, a sharing of ideas.
“It was bridging the understanding between two cultures and that was happening for everybody, and in a sense, thematically, that’s part of what’s happening in the story.”
High Ground is in cinemas now
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