High Ground (MA) - 104 minutes
If you want an example to show how white man stole the land from its original native inhabitants and tried to suppress their spirit and soul at the point of a gun, look no further than High Ground.
We’re in Arnhem Land in 1919 and a raid on a small black community goes horribly wrong, leaving a trail of dead – primarily black men, women and children.
The instigators were the police, who were hot on the heels of a couple of indigenous men who had killed a cow.
Then we cut to 12 years later and one of those injured and left for dead, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), has recovered and seeks revenge.
He attacks white settlements and leaves his own trail of destruction.
A senior lawman, Moran (Jack Thompson), is sent to bring him down and restore peace.
He has a “my way or the highway” approach.
Ex-soldier Travis (Simon Baker), who was part of the original police team that conducted the ill-fated raid more than a decade earlier and feels guilty about what went down, is used as bait.
In reality, he empathises with the plight of the aborigines, but when Baywara’s nephew Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) learns that he was part of the force that killed his extended family he is ready to turn on Travis.
And that is despite the fact that Travis took Gutjuk to the safety of a Christian mission, where the preacher’s sister Claire (Caren Pistorius) brought him up.
The real villain of the piece though is Travis’ colleague Eddy (Callan Mulvey) and the pair clash regularly.
Suffice to say that before this is over, much more blood will be spilled.
At the heart of High Ground is the tragic story of Frontier encounters.
The film explores themes of identity and culture.
The way director Stephen Maxwell Johnson presents it, Australia under white rule was all about conquest.
He uses fiction to illustrate a deeper truth, namely the shameful treatment of the First Peoples.
Importantly, Johnson allows the material to breathe (the pacing is deliberately slow), enabling indigenous spirituality and love of the land to be heavily embedded into the offering.
The narrative is from screenwriter Chris Anastassiades.
The landscape is magnificent and the cinematography, including aerial shots, superb throughout. It is the work of Andrew Commis (Babyteeth).
As an ensemble, the acting talent assembled does the material justice, displaying strength, anger, fear and vulnerability.
Baker captures the dilemma of his character well.
Nayinggul’s stillness allows us to all but see into Gutjuk’s heart.
Thompson displays authority with conviction.
Incidentally, the title is drawn from the best vantage point for seeing all that unfolds, which is the role of a sniper.
High Ground is a fine piece of movie making, covering important material about the country’s dark past.
Rated MA, it scores a 7½ to 8 out of 10.