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Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson and musician Witiyana Marika drew on three decades of friendship to create the Northern Territory action thriller High Ground. By Travis Akbar.

Stephen Maxwell Johnson and Witiyana Marika

Stephen Maxwell Johnson (left) and Witiyana Marika.
Credit: Mark Rogers

High Ground – the new Northern Territory action film from Stephen Maxwell Johnson and his long-time collaborator Witiyana Marika – is a triumph of patience, timing and persistence. But most of all, it’s a tribute to friendship.

Its achievement is no fluke. This film has been at least 60,000 years in the making, and the concept was developed over three decades. Johnson and Marika, one of the co-founders of Yothu Yindi, have been working together since Johnson began directing music clips for the popular band in the late ’80s. Yothu Yindi – Yolngu for “child and mother” – takes influences from Western and Yolngu cultures to create modern rock music combined with traditional dance, creating hits such as “Treaty” and “Tribal Voice”. Since they first worked together, Johnson and Marika have dreamed of making a film like High Ground.

“[In] 1985, we started the band, and he [Johnson] came along in ’89, working in the Kakadu and lots of things with films and documentaries,” Marika says. “We always talked about the Both Ways thing, two cultures working and coming together, to make history. It started with Yothu Yindi. We are going to live on, work on and show other Australians, Black and white, working together.”

The “Both Ways System” was partly developed by Mandawuy Yunupingu, another founding member of Yothu Yindi, when he became assistant principal at the Yirrkala Community School in 1989. The Both Ways System recognises traditional Aboriginal teaching alongside Western methods.

With a fictional plot based on historical fact, High Ground is set in Arnhem Land in the 1930s. It follows Gutjuk (played beautifully by newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul), a young Aboriginal man who at eight years old becomes one of two survivors of a massacre, and one of the last of his family after they are massacred by an Australian soldier and his men.

Among the perpetrators is an experienced sniper, Travis (Simon Baker, in an outstanding performance). While Travis has no real hand in the killings himself, he feels guilty about it for the next decade.

In the meantime, Gutjuk’s uncle and another massacre survivor, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), has brought together a resistance group to fight colonisation, which quickly becomes known as “The Wild Mob”. Police chief Moran – played by Jack Thompson – enlists Eddy (Callan Mulvey) and forces Travis to hunt down and kill The Wild Mob, while manipulating the now 18-year-old Gutjuk to track them. But Gutjuk is not as easily deceived as everyone thinks.

High Ground is the work of a huge team of people, including the cast, crew and several Aboriginal communities. One of the key creatives is screenwriter Chris Anastassiades, whose varied career includes work for film and television across drama, action and comedy. His debut feature film was the Nick Giannopoulos hit The Wog Boy (2000), followed by Yolngu Boy in 2001, a beautiful film that revolves around three Yolgnu teenagers. It was shot in Arnhem Land with several of the key creatives behind High Ground, including Johnson, Marika and producer Maggie Miles.

It’s tempting to think that the collaboration on High Ground began with Yolngu Boy, but that’s not the case.

Johnson always wanted to be a filmmaker. His parents were teachers whose jobs took the family around the world, from the Bahama Islands to Africa, and eventually the Northern Territory. “I was very fortunate to grow up in remote, beautiful places, in particular the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land,” Johnson recalls.

Throughout his childhood Johnson created friendships with families from around Arnhem Land and heard a lot of oral history about the injustices faced by Indigenous people during colonisation. “It was never getting taught in school, so I had a fascination with our history because it was like the great untold story about what actually had happened in Australia,” he says.

Johnson went to school in Arnhem Land before studying filmmaking in Darwin. He returned to Arnhem Land with the idea of making a film in the Northern Territory.

Marika grew up surrounded by storytellers – his father, grandmothers and uncles. His father was involved in the Barunga Statement – a document signalling collaboration and communication across cultures and languages – which was painted on bark and presented in 1988 to then prime minister Bob Hawke. Marika particularly remembers hearing about the massacre of his paternal grandmother’s clan, a story that was never taught at school. He says he became a “deadly Black young man, growing up with [cultural] knowledge”.

“I wasn’t shaken by big crowds, or nervous,” he says of forming Yothu Yindi. “I was just naturally prepared.” After working with Johnson on the Yothu Yindi clips, Marika was the perfect partner for Johnson and Anastassiades on Yolngu Boy.

“I pretty well shot everything they did, and a documentary, Tribal Voice,” says Johnson. “This fella [Marika] and I ran around the world together for a long, long, time doing a lot of things, with Mandawuy. The three of us started talking about an idea of a film about the truth of our history, with Chris Anastassiades.”

Discussions for the concept that turned into High Ground started before Yolngu Boy. “Over 25 [years] ago,” says Johnson. “But we couldn’t make the film back then because no one would be interested.”

Inspiration came from the truth of the Country, as Johnson explains. “You’ve heard about Pemulwuy, and Yagan, and Jandamarra and Mosquito, it’s endless, and women too, who all stood up and fought in resistance, which was what the film was originally called. Resistance. We really just started talking and thrashing it out … Chris had worked up in Arnhem Land with me on Yolngu Boy, and knows the land, and knows the people, so it was really an amazing team effort.”

Marika wasn’t the only Indigenous person involved in the creation of the film. As the history that inspired the film occurred across eastern and western Arnhem Land, the crew began to work with communities from both areas, across different languages and cultures.

As Johnson says, it isn’t about a whitefella telling a blackfella story. It’s about the collaboration between him and his best mate Marika.

“It’s really beautiful that people can come together and achieve great things,” he says. “High Ground is a testament of that. Chris and I decided early on that the best way to tell the story was to create a fiction to tell a deeper truth. In other words, inspired by true events and characters from right across Country. But realise that story with the wisdom [of] Mandawuy, and Witiyana, and all the families and Elders right across Arnhem Land.”

Marika speaks of the film proudly: it centres his culture and parts of his own history, and he is proud to see it on screen. Nimbuwa Rock, which features in the film, is an important part of that culture.

“In songline, and creation, two sisters started from east to west, making a deep understanding of Country,” he says, explaining that the profile of two young girls can be seen in the rock. “And right in the centre, the two sisters, the west and east can meet, through the songline, and through creation, south, north, east, west.

“The little sister is looking towards the east, you can see her profile, eyes, nose and mouth … The big sister is looking to the west, she wanted to go west, but the little one, the baby sister, she wanted the paradise in the east, and that’s our story. It’s a very sacred rock.”

Johnson says that “everything in the film culturally, all the detail, is absolutely spot on as it was in those days. Everything from the stone spears, to everything that was made, it’s all done traditionally, it’s all from the correct places as it would have been back then. It has actually taken a very long time to actually physically get it together. Language in the film is also a really important texture, we use quite a lot of language. It’s a beautiful sound and rhythm and another important part of the story.”

Identity is one of the main drivers of the story. “We really wanted to humanise the characters, and create real people,” says Johnson, before adding that “everything is in the film for a reason”.

At the beginning of the film, the young protagonist Gutjuk is being taught about his culture by his Uncle Baywara as he hunts and jokes with him.

The scene shows the importance of teaching and family to Indigenous people, a portrayal that’s not seen often. “Kinship is important,” says Marika. “Everyone is connected – mother earth, father sky, people of earth, you know, mother, son, grandfather and grandsons, connecting in the bigger cycle of life.”

While the goal of High Ground was to create a commercial film steeped in the truths of history, the filmmakers didn’t intend to make a political statement. “It was never about being political, it was more about ‘Let’s just poke our head into this side of history and see what was going on, how were people flawed and affected’, and people can take away what they want to take away from the story,” says Johnson. “But I do hope that it does make people rethink things.”

It’s almost impossible for politics not to enter the conversation. January is the month of Invasion Day protests that highlight the injustices of colonisation. While the film is a fiction, it’s based on true events.

“It’s the displacement in this country that we cannot ultimately appreciate that has happened in this country,” says Johnson. “It’s like someone walking into your home, saying, ‘We don’t see you, you’re out.’ The meeting of two significant cultures could have been a great opportunity for something new, but it wasn’t.”

Johnson believes that until we confront our history and rethink our story we’re not going to fix anything, and that we need to reassess who we are as human beings. “It’s not about Black or white, we are all innately human,” he says. “This is the oldest living culture on Earth, and it’s precious.”

Marika says it’s powerful to see his 60,000-year-old culture on screen. A dillybag worn by his character, Grandfather Dharrpa, is of special significance; it’s an artefact from his own family. “The dillybag, it’s where everything comes from, the knowledge,” he says. “It’s like mother earth. A mother’s womb. The people, the children, always come from the mother’s womb. That dillybag was ours, it’s special: our crown jewel to represent our power, the land.”

Another scene shows the characters Gutjuk and Travis exchanging knowledge from their own perspectives. This scene drives much of the story and is a tribute to the positive steps that can be taken when two people from different backgrounds try to understand each other.

As High Ground itself is the result of collaborations between several different cultures, it’s a testament to that exact notion. Marika finishes the interview with a simple message: “Always was, always will be.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "Working both ways".

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Travis Akbar is a Wongutha man living on Peramangk Country. He is a film critic, freelance writer and screenwriter.