The key scene in which Jack Thompson’s police chief tries to beat up Witiyana tribal chief Marika – carrying his sacred dilly bag
Jeremy Eccles | 01.15.21
Author: Jeremy Eccles
News Source: Review
Publication date: 20210117000000
This film is a 20 year labor of love by Stephen Johnson and the people of Arnhemland. Because Johnson has started working with Witiyana Marika on a film to accompany Yothu Yindi’s anthem, ‘Treaty‘, and, since then, has collected stories of families across Arnhemland, from the coast of Carpentaria to Oenpelli / Gunbalanya in the west. From Yolngu to Kunwinjku. And the results of this film are all about the invasion of their land by white men in the early 20th century.
Black and white? Yes and no. Of course, people are one or the other (aside from Aaron Pederson’s “half-caste bastard” brought in from the vicious Queensland Mounted Police for no very obvious reason). But morally? Both sides have their relative good guys and bad guys. But a clear white origin story resides with Donald Thomson – famous for his association with “Thomson Time” which was the legendary period of the 1930s celebrated in the wonderful “Rolf de Heer”Ten canoes‘ movie.
Thomson knew from his experience in Cape York that police action following murders would only provoke violence. As he traveled there on his own and had time to settle down, he might prove able to bring aboriginal murderers to justice, where the justification for their murder against a Japanese fishing crew could be tested. In a sense, the character of Travis in ‘Heights‘(Simon Baker of ‘The mentalist‘TV series, and director of’Breath‘) is part of Thomson. Because he is reluctantly involved in a police action that turns into a massacre, then becomes independent.
Travis was a sniper during WW1, where he worked with the significantly blacker whitefella, Ambrose, played with a spiky mustache by Callan Mulvey. As Ambrose explains at one point, the sniper is the “good guy”; the observer chooses the target and then ensures that the kill is successful. White and Black. But it’s no coincidence that ‘Heights‘chose the same kinds of characters and the same post-war period as Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet country‘. This is first contact and whitefellas can be interpreted as victims of war PTSD.
There is no excuse, however, for Jack Thompson’s boss cop “the conquest, not the settlement”. Playing delightfully against the guy, Thompson has Machiavellian plans for Travis and the Arnhemlanders. And the film’s most memorable scene is the meeting of the black and white law as Thompson relies on the royal badge on his pith helmet to try to outwit Witiyana Marika’s Dharrpa – who has her own powerful talisman in the sacred dilly bag that other Yolngu alumni allowed him to publicly support this movie.
Both sides call for action in the name of justice. But Dharrpa wins the argument by pointing out that his people never got justice for the massacre 12 years earlier. Sadly, he doesn’t control his nephew, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) who leads his own act of revenge, prompted by the relentless warrior Gulwirri, well-vindicated and beautifully played by Esmerelda Marimowa.
She is part of the Gunwinjku mob of the west, guardian of Kakadu Park where so many fantastic landscapes are captured by cinematographer Andrew Commis – giving the NT government the full value of its $ 400,000 investment. And the strength of the Gunwinjku mob is enhanced by the central appearance of Jacob Junior Nayinggul, as Gutjuk, a baby rescued from the 1919 massacre, raised in the East Alligator River Mission, but ultimately herded by his tribal people.
Oddly enough, I recently wrote about his grandfather Jacob Nayinggul as one of the informants for the book on Paddy Compass Namadbara. Jacob Senior was taken under the wing of the super intelligent to become a community leader and the leader of the Manilakarra clan. ‘High Ground’ has serious ties to Arnhem.
But Chris Anastassiades’ script doesn’t quite measure up. As one reviewer commented at the film’s prestigious launch at the Berlin Film Festival in February, too often “it lets the bullets do the talking.” The characters’ motivations are rarely stated and confusing at times, and when most of them are left dead, there’s not much of a chance to wonder why they acted the way they did. As missionary Claire (delicately played by Caren Pistorius) sadly watches Gutjuk leave with Gulwirri at the end, I wondered if she was crying like the women who had “raised” her for 12 years, or if there was just a touch of feminine passion for the beautiful young blackfella.
More importantly, was Travis’ fate really justified by Gutjuk’s belief that he played a vital role in the slaughter of his family in 1919, when it was clear in my memory that Travis had tried to control this event from the heights. But maybe the whole point of this title for the movie was the lesson that in Arnhemland you don’t necessarily control anything of the ‘Heights‘!
“High Ground’s first appearance in Sydney is part of the ‘summer season’ of the Sydney Film Festival tomorrow at 3:30 pm at the State Theater. After that, it will be released nationally on Thursday, January 28. There are a few premieres this week. -end.
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Simon Baker as the figure of Donald Thomson, Travis in ‘High Ground’
Jacob Junior Nayinggul as young Arnhemlander torn between the Mission and his tribe