High Ground may tell a fictional story but it’s steeped in historical fact: the brutal massacres of Indigenous people in Australia’s early 1900s frontier wars, crimes that remains unreckoned with and whose traumatic consequences continue to be felt.
“Our story is right here,” says Witiyana Marika, the film’s producer and senior cultural adviser, who is also a founding member of Yothu Yindi. “We didn’t make [it] up.”
Shot on location in the Northern Territory, in the Indigenous-protected Kakadu national park and in Arnhem Land, High Ground – a “northern action thriller” – stars Simon Baker and newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul as an unlikely pair who bond while hunting for a renegade group of Indigenous warriors, navigating the harsh outback terrain together.
Baker’s sharpshooter-turned-bounty hunter Travis wants redemption for the unspeakable crimes committed by his police team 12 years earlier, while Nayinggul’s Gutjuk – one of two survivors of the massacre – seeks revenge.
For Marika, a senior leader of the Rirratjingu people, the drive to retell this period of history came from a personal place: his grandmother’s clan faced the punishing brunt of the “horsemen”.
“My father was the one that told us the story of what happened then,” he says, speaking to Guardian Australia over Zoom from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre at Yirrkala. “It’s only through a level of understanding of country, and through the cycle of songs, that they were able to pass on that story.”
High Ground opens with a magnificent drone shot of the sacred site of Nimbuwa Rock; the film immerses the audience in the sparse landscape, with its plants and animals – the cawing birds, the buzzing flies, the slithering snakes.
“The strange and divine ranges tell a story and connects people … it’s there, it’s in their blood,” Marika says. “There is a big mountain called Nimbuwa Rock, that’s where the two sisters created us: from my side in the east, giving the land and power, moving resources. The youngest one looks to the east, the other one looks at the west – and in the middle of Arnhem Land, that’s where they stand: south, east, north, west.”
The film came about through what the creators describe as a deep and inclusive collaboration between the traditional owners of Cannon Hill, Gunbalanya and Gunlom, and balanda (non-Aboriginal) film-makers – a relationship that stemmed from decades of trust-building. Marika, in particular, had a pivotal role, consulting with Indigenous clans and nations, bringing them together through their shared stories and history, and negotiating the special permissions needed to film on sacred land.
Maggie Miles, another producer, says while the production initially faced rigorous questioning from Indigenous communities over its cultural authenticity, the filming received “unanimous” local support. The board of the Kakadu national park – the park’s traditional owners – assessed the script to make sure “everything was being approached in the right way”.
Marika met the director, Stephen Maxwell Johnson, in 1989, when they worked together on film clips for Yothu Yindi, whose hit Treaty became one of the first Indigenous-language songs to break the mainstream charts in Australia and abroad. The team, alongside Miles and the screenwriter Chris Anastassiades, went on to make the 2001 coming-of-age film Yolngu Boy – but the idea for High Ground was always brewing behind the scenes.
Johnson grew up in the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land, listening to stories of “the old people right across Australia, about the shocking events that happened”. This made it a “natural process” for him to “tell the untold story of our country … It’s always been a two-way conversation to me,” he says.
He describes the production’s approach as “both ways”: a concept pioneered by the late Dr M Yunupingu, Yothu Yindi’s founding frontman, who is acknowledged in High Ground’s credits. He advocated for an education system that would bring western and Indigenous ways of thinking together.
This desire for unity inspired the film’s core theme: makarrata – a Yolgnu word that describes the acknowledging of wrongs and the coming together of two parties after a dispute. It also conveys the restoration of balance.
“Without balance, there’s only ever going to be misunderstanding and conflict between cultures,” Johnson says. “We wanted to tell a story that helps elevate the conscious awareness of Australians and empower Aboriginal identity and culture that our country can protect.”
In one scene, Gutjuk attempts to act as the mediator during a crucial negotiation between police chief Moran (Jack Thompson) and Yolngu tribal elder Grandfather Dharrpa (Marika). But, as in real life, it becomes a missed opportunity for reconciliation.
Nayinngul, a local ranger in the Gunbalanya community in east Arnhem Land, has been praised for his debut screen performance. To channel Gutjuk, he says, he drew on his connection to country and the spirit of his grandfather. “I did this for my family,” he says. “We do have sacred ground. It was my land – and I’m one of the creatures of the landscape.”
Looking forward to the future, Marika hopes for “makarrata to the parliament to meet and reconcile”, and to continue fighting for a treaty for the next generation. “When we made this film, every town in that area came together to speak one voice, one heart, one soul,” he says.
“Let’s come to an agreement. Come on, Australia, wake up. Government, wake up. Be one. It’s powerful.”
• High Ground is in Australian cinemas now