In the Northern Territory, the endless beauty stretches out for miles. Luscious trees and the calm, turquoise blue of a small lake are the home of Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), a young boy who yearns to be a hunter like his uncle Baywarra (Sean Mununggur) and the rest of family, all members of the Yolngu people. When two fugitives arrive seeking refuge, though, the police invade these peaceful surroundings and a massacre, led by Walter (Aaron Pedersen), ensues.
The violent attack is initiated by the sniper Travis (Simon Baker), who rushes down from his spot when he sees the violence has escalated — killing two of his own men after they senselessly murder all who live in the camp, including a young baby. Gutjuk is hidden in the reeds by his mother, but after being spotted by Travis is taken back to the mission and raised among the white settlers. Twelve years later, word of a “violent” mob killing a white woman reaches the territory police, and Travis is forced back to the world he left behind to confront Baywarra — now the leader of the group responsible — who seeks revenge for the massacre. After recruiting the now-older Gutjak to help to track down his uncle, Travis becomes caught in the middle of a deadly battle for the right to exist in Australia.
While the Berlinale Programme focused its synopsis on the conflict between Baywarra and Travis, it’s really Gutjuk who is the film’s central protagonist. This is not a “white savior” narrative, but a perceptive story about those responsible for brutal colonial violence who are forced to deal with the consequences. It also tackles themes of identity and family, and the divisions that are inherent in a group righting for the same cause. Having survived the massacre of his family, Gutjuk is brought up on a mission by Claire (Caren Pistorius) and her brother Braddock (Ryan Corr). His forceful assimilation into this society sees him given the “new” name of Tommy, and it’s during his work with the animals that he encounters the group of Yolngu striving to take back their land.
Nayinggul brings a quiet ferocity to his role as the young man encountering members of a family he thought lost. Gutjuk’s previous run-in with Travis is partly why he’s selected to aid the policeman in his capture of Baywarra, but he also functions as bait — though Gutjak is not so naive, quickly turning the tables on Travis during a tense stand-off in the long grasses when characters are crossed (and double-crossed) with alarming regularity. Nayinggul’s performance captures the turmoil of a young man trying to reconnect with his heritage in the face of oppression.
While Baywarra demands immediate consequence, his father Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) attempts to find a peaceful solution through negotiation with the senior policeman, Moran (Jack Thompson), during a tense scene involving the people of the Yolnu tribe attending informal peace talks with those who have slaughtered their family. But the rule of law will never work in a country where one group’s experiences are weighted — significantly, and violently — against another. During this period in Australia, the laws of the land only apply when it’s a white woman who is killed. The white woman functions not only as a symbol of colonization but also as the virginal purity that is sacred above all else; the massacre of an entire family of Indigenous people (including women and children), meanwhile, is covered up without hesitation.
There is something deeply unsettling about how director Stephen Maxwell Johnson constructs the isolation of the Northern Territory, creating a unique contrast between the beauty of the natural landscape with the constant noises of the various insects that dominate the sound mix so that Travis, especially, is always searching for its sources. As a former soldier who is trained to notice all of his surroundings, this places him on the back foot — his attention spread out and easily diverted during all of his encounters, unlike the natural ease that Baywarra and the rest of his mob possess in navigating these environments. This fundamental difference is furthered when Travis shows Gutjak how to shoot to from an outcrop, reminding him that “whoever has the high ground controls everything” — a tactic that, when recounted to Baywarra’s group, sees Gutjak dismissively told that he “thinks like a white man.” It’s through colonial violence that the white settlers have “taken control” of a land not their own; the Indigenous people that they displace do not seek to dominate nature, but to live as a part of it — their faith rooted in the guidance of Mother Earth and Father Sky.
The violence of Australia’s colonial history is confronted head-on and without hesitation, and so High Ground proves a particularly tough watch. With grounded and moving performances from the cast (especially Nayinggul), it is a vital film that, importantly, has been created — starring and produced — by members of the Yolngu people, giving a voice to a shameful part of history that now needs to be told.