High Ground highlights the power of story to enable healing through truth telling. The challenge is whether this country can handle the truth at the heart of this film’s story.Teena Reid, 2021.
Author: Casey Abel
Film Score: Highly Recommended
The new Australian ‘meat-pie Western’ High Ground is a film for all Australians. Beautifully shot, magnificently acted, and well written High Ground is an excellent film in it’s own right. For the Australian viewer, however, this cinema piece engages in an activity that strikes at the heart of our national identity: truth-telling.
For those more historically inclined, High Ground may not prove to be the Anglo-challenging narrative implied in the film’s marketing. The writers tackle themes of massacres and conflict head on, but do so in a historical context that makes the film feel as though it has been purposefully made palatable for White audiences.
Film Synopsis (No Spoilers)
High Ground follows Gutjuk, a young Yolngu man raised on a Christian mission after the massacre of his family. As an adult Gutjuk finds purpose and community after he crosses paths with Travis, one of the police troopers present at, but not actively involved in, his families murder. Gutjuk finds himself caught between two worlds, meanwhile Travis is haunted by regret and shame.
Post-Viewing Discussion: The Frontier Wars in Australian Cinema
When I first heard of High Ground in late 2020, it was in the midst of online discussion branding it as a powerful act of ‘truth-telling’. The notion of truth-telling is a concept intrinsically tied to the ‘History Wars‘, and mainstream Australia’s inability to honestly accept the darker aspects of our past.
It was with Australia’s cultural struggle in mind that I interpreted the hype around High Ground as meaning the film was going to thematically explore the Frontier Wars. I entered the cinema anticipating a visual portrayal of a First Nation going to war with the British Empire in the defence of their lands and peoples. As brilliant a movie as High Ground is, my misguided presumptions saw me leaving the cinema yearning for something more.
In her discussion of High Ground, Teela Reid expressed that, “The challenge is whether this country can handle the truth at the heart of this film’s story…”. Reid is a lawyer and descendent of the Wiradjuri and Waiwan Nations. Her words here are surely intuitive, stemming from countless experiences putting up with White-Australia’s ignorance of our shared histories.
High Ground went into production with the purpose of informing White Australians of a suppressed chapter of our History: the Frontier Wars and all the cruelties that occurred within them. The creative trio behind the story of High Ground, director Stephen Johnson, writer Chris Anastasiadis, and cultural advisor Witiyana Marika, have emphasised their intentions of making a film ‘about the truth of our history’.
It is an unfortunate but seemingly necessary service, as most Australian’s do not know even the basics of their own national history. A sad truth demonstrated, for example, by two consecutive studies which found less than half of Australians know which historical event January 26th commemorates.
The release of High Ground on ‘Invasion Day’ was a purposeful move in this regard. First Nations peoples anger and hurt regarding ‘Invasion Day’ is justified. January 26th has been a day of mourning for First Nations peoples since 1938, long before it was instituted nationally as Australia Day in 1994. The constant need for First Nations peoples to assert themselves, their realities and to educate their white counterparts is an exhaustive process. As explained by Noongar writer Claire Coleman: “Every moment of January is filled with defending myself and my articles on colonisation from attacks on social media, while attempting to use the momentary media interest to educate people about the true history of Australia.
By no means am I the only Indigenous voice writing and talking on the issue. Every year, Indigenous authors, writers, activists and artists use their platforms to fight against the white-supremacist celebration of the day genocide against our people began.”
The Meanjin Inquirer suggests our readers listen to the first episode of the Take it Blak Podcast, where a group of First Nations people discuss this topic in depth. Viewers be warned, High Ground is a violent film, and this violence is grounded firmly in reality. Despite being a work of fiction the plot is essentially a kaleidoscope of real historical stories woven into a fictional narrative, and the writers deserve much praise for this.
Is High Ground a Visual Depiction of The Frontier Wars?
The Frontier Wars are acknowledged within Australian historiography nowadays. This is despite, and not because of, the History Wars which have seen many Australian historians fall victim to the spite of conservative institutions vying for control of the nation’s story. The severity of criticism and ridicule revisionist historians face in publishing research, is enough to make clear why the team behind High Ground would not want to go all out on their truth-telling venture. The setting of High Ground is 1919 onwards, and so chronicles a fictional story playing out during the waning years of The Frontier Wars.
The Frontier Wars are generally conceptualised as having occurred between 1788 and 1930. Prior to 1788 the Australasian continent and relevant isles were comprised of hundreds of pre-existing countries similar to Europe. These First Nations, as they are commonly called, often times actively fought back against the British Empire when invaded. The British, and later their colonial constituents, invariably came into conflict with these countries as they conquered their way across Australasia. By 1900 most First Nations people were survivors of countries now perished, and concerned with their own survival, and the preservation of their cultures and languages.
The latter context is where our characters find themselves. In 1919, Gutjuk’s family are attempting to live out their lifeways when they are brutally murdered by pastoralists and police. Gutjuk is taken to a Christian Mission, all the while another Yolngu character gathers and leads a band of their remnant countrymen and woman in a desperate campaign of guerrilla warfare against the colonial authorities.
Progressing towards a Representative Portrayal of The Frontier Wars
Historian John Connor covered the time period of explicit British military involvement in Australia’s Frontier Wars in his seminal work The Frontier Wars 1788-1838. If we imagine that High Ground had been set within this era, the historical focus of the film would have differed dramatically. The degree of violence and combat would have been considerably escalated. In this regard, the Bathurst War of 1822-24, which saw the Wiradjuri pitted against a coalition of pastoralists, state Colonial forces and the British Royal Marines, would have more met my misguided expectations.
After the British military ceased deployments to the Frontier in 1838, the Frontier Wars escalated rather than receded. Conflicts continued to erupt as Colonial Forces and pastoralists expanded further into the North of the continent and out into the interior. There are innumerable conflicts which could have served as the backdrop for High Ground. The final stand of the mighty Kalkatungu (anglicised Kalkadoon) army at Battle Mountain in 1884, would make for a particularly dramatic cinematic spectacle. Likewise, the resistance campaign led by some remnants of the Bunaba Nation under the command of Jandamarra in the 1890’s is another.
It is unfortunate that the time period context renders the characters feeling more comparable to a band of rebels, or a gang of Bush Rangers (as a wanted poster in one scene depicts them), than a group of sovereign citizens fighting for their country. High Ground is wholly accurate for the time era it depicts; but it is this time-setting that leaves it feeling like a missed opportunity for more impactful truth-telling.
Australian’s and Our Frontier History
Seemingly, Australia is not ready for an explicit visual adaptation of earlier episodes of Frontier History. Teela Reid is right to question whether Australians can handle the truth espoused in High Ground as it is. We see examples of Australia’s refusal to look in the mirror on any given day. The Australian War Memorial refuses to acknowledge the Frontier Wars as an aspect of Australian military history. Our Prime Minister has incorrectly claimed that there was no slavery in Australia. The furore over the book Dark Emu, which attempts to persuade for the complexity of First Nations societies, rings home how insecure and frail Australians can be.
Future projects aiming to accurately depict our nation’s past are necessary, both for reconciliation and for national healing. Australia must mature and face the atrocities of our predecessors in order to truly come together as nation. For all the bickering that occurred in the wake of Dark Emu, it started many conversations. No doubt a film set during the earlier phases of the Frontier Wars would do so as well.