Q&A with Stephen Maxwell Johnson

BY JOHNNY MILNER

In March 2021, the NFSA screened High Ground, a revisionist Western set in Arnhem Land during the early 20th century frontier wars. The screening was followed by a Q&A with director Stephen Maxwell Johnson, who spoke about the context of the film's production and how colonial violence has become inseparable from the nation's troubled history.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that the following article may contain names, images or voices of deceased persons.

Go Deeper…

High Ground tells the story of First World War veteran sniper Travis (Simon Baker), who leads a patrol of officers into Arnhem Land to apprehend a pair of Aboriginal getaways.

The patrol locates the two among an Aboriginal tribe. What should have been an operation of minimal force becomes a bloodthirsty massacre of innocent people. Disgusted by the event and the subsequent cover-up by his commanding officer, Moran (played by the iconic Jack Thompson), Travis leaves the force.

He returns 12 years later to hunt down Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), an Aboriginal warrior outlaw causing mayhem among new settlers.

Desperate to atone for – and to avoid repeating – past events, Travis recruits mission-raised Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), the only known massacre survivor, as his tracker. But the truth is soon revealed about Travis's involvement in the past event.

View the trailer for High Ground.

The massacre

In the film's pivotal early scene, we encounter an Aboriginal community going about their daily life – men hunting for food, a young boy rehearsing spear motions and a peaceful family preparing a meal by an idyllic lagoon. And then comes the horrific massacre.

This scene's sheer brutality resonates as a moment of historical reckoning – and with a growing acceptance of the extent to which such events occurred across the continent.

By showing the community's traditional practices, the film clarifies these massacres not only took lives but threatened whole cultures.

The film also conveys the devastating effects of such atrocities on surviving members and the visceral intergenerational trauma felt by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

In some ways, High Ground recalls Rolf de Heer's earlier film The Tracker (2002), a stark moral tale set 'somewhere in Australia' in 1922. Both films present a history of massacres and colonial atrocities.

But while High Ground portrays the violence graphically, The Tracker substitutes paintings created for the film by South Australian artist Peter Coad.

For more on The Tracker, listen to our Q&A with Rolf de Heer.

A 'Northern' not a 'Western'

While High Ground is a fictionalised story that draws from the conventions of the Western genre, it tells of a 'true history', says director Johnson. The massacre, for instance, is based on the Gan Gan Massacre in which mounted police killed more than 30 Yolngu people in a 'punishment expedition'. Gutnik is inspired by the sole survivor of that massacre, who passed away in recent years – another testament to the historical closeness of such events.

Johnson prefers the term 'Northern' to 'Western' and differentiates his film by emphasising Aboriginal culture respectfully and meticulously. The production took many years to complete. Throughout that time, Johnson and the film's senior cultural advisor, Witiyana Marika (also a founding member of Yothu Yindi), consulted communities right across the North end.

We hear in the Q&A about how the characters were cast, the stories behind the locations, totems and landmarks, and the area's creation myths. The film's collaborative and consultative approach sits in stark contrast to some 20th century films featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many of which contain spurious stereotyping and tokenism.

Representing landscape

High Ground foregrounds the spectacular flora, fauna and topography of Arnhem Land. Stunning rock formations, eucalypts, pandanus and crocodiles permeate many of the film's scenes.

Perhaps most striking in this regard are the constant images and sounds of magpie geese, including one particularly mesmerising tracking shot of a flock in full flight, with their oscillating sounds.

The film does not include a composed score; instead, environmental sounds, traditional music from the region and the incorporation of local Yolngu dialects add to the sense of authenticity of the world portrayed in the film.

But these elements also create a heightened emotional intensity that complements both the storytelling and narrative action. 

Yolngu Boy

High Ground was produced nearly two decades after Johnson's debut feature, Yolngu Boy (2001). While his first film focused on the contemporary experiences of Aboriginal youth, High Ground provides an exploration of colonial conflict of an earlier time.

Both films continue a mission to foreground the Aboriginal population's stories and voices in the Northern Territory.

The clip below is an excerpt from Yolngu Boy. Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui) dreams of when he and his friends were initiated, as Botj (Sean Mununggur) arrives back from three months in jail:

You can read more about Yolngu Boy on australianscreen

Johnson is also known for his work directing Yothu Yindi's music videos in the late 1980s. You can discover more about Yothu Yindi's 'Treaty' here and on ASO.

And to hear more from Jack Thompson, who also features in High Ground, see our Deep Dive about the iconic film Sunday Too Far Away.