HIGH GROUND Untold tales of Arnhem Land

High Ground is a stirring new Australian film that shows a unique snapshot of our history. Based in Arnhem Land just after the Frontier Wars and just before our involvement in WW2, it exposes the brutal history of Australia’s Indigenous-White relations, detailing the co-habitation of the two cultures in the early 20th century. DAVID MORGAN-BROWN spoke to actors Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggul about the film’s influence from real-life history, the land on which they filmed, and their weaponry experience before going into the fairly violent film.

Were there any historical references that you used to get into the timeframe that this film is set in?

SIMON: I think there’s a truckload of historical references that Stephen (Johnson, the director) had worked through. The film’s been in the works for 20 years and he’d been researching all over Arnhem Land with Witiyana Marika, who is the cultural ambassador…and he played Gutjuk’s grandfather in the film. In the development of the script of over 20 years, different stories were collected from all over the Arnhem Land, east and west.

Did you research and get an idea of the Indigenous-White relations of this time?

SIMON: Did I specifically? Yes. Well, and Stephen definitely has. Traditionally what used to happen during the Frontier Wars or after World War I, a lot of soldiers that fought in World War I were stationed out as Police Officers in the territory where they could sort of deal with their PTSD from being in the war. They went out in the bush, which was a pretty tough place.

If you look at the list of credits at the end, it’s a very long credit reel because of the amount of people that have contributed to it with permissions on land, on country over the years. We shot a lot of this film on Jacob’s country. Jacob’s grandfather is a traditional owner, yeah?

JACOB: Yeah, traditional owner. Since he passed away, we’ve been looking after it, our brothers and sisters and uncles.

SIMON: And you are considered a traditional owner of that land as well?

JACOB: Yeah.

SIMON: Of that land that we shot the majority of the film, and in getting permissions to shoot in those locations, we had different ceremonies to welcome us in onto that country. Because there’s a lot of these countries that “balanda” (white people) had never been to really, there were a lot of places that were…

JACOB: Sort of secret area.

SIMON: That white fellows had never been to, so there was ceremony.

JACOB: Welcoming people, and then nothing’s going to happen, yeah.

SIMON: To make it safe.

JACOB: For good thoughts, good spirit.

SIMON: We did a lot of those. Every location we had ceremony of welcome to that particular area to make it good, make it safer.

JACOB: Some sort of like screeching spirit was out there with us, but we didn’t get bitten by any snakes, didn’t get bitten by a crocodile, or fell off from a rock.

SIMON: No, there were no problems. We had a crocodile wrangler on the set most of the time. Sometimes when we would leave a location, we would be sung out of that location, so sort of farewelled out. So there’s a lot of cultural stuff that went along with the process of making the film and all of the authenticity in the costume and the armbands and the paint, and the spears…everything was all traditionally done.

Speaking of spears, I was wondering did you both receive any weapon training for this film, for rifles and spears?

SIMON: We did a little gun training. You’d probably done a lot of spear training through ceremony and stuff, yeah?

JACOB: Yeah, like when I’m out, sometimes I do it. I do have a corporate license for gun. Or to just make a spear, I would get material like steel to create a pointy, sharp spearhead. Mainly for the riverside to fish. And for Buffalo.

SIMON: That must be scary.

JACOB: Just make a big one. Just make a big sharp one. And then you don’t have to tie the rope, just get some sugar beets and it sticks really well.

What was it like to be filming in these stunning locations? Did it set up any challenges or was it beneficial for your acting?

SIMON: I think both. It set up challenges because you’ve got to get a film crew in there and a lot of these locations were quite remote and hard to get to. Sometimes you have to climb up on rocks and stuff with camera gear and equipment. But it’s so much a part of the film. It’s such a big character in the movie, the landscape and the energy of the land itself.

Gutjuk’s grandfather talks about mother earth and father sky and the balance and feeling the ground and listening to the sky, looking at the sky and that energy, so you felt that the whole time when you were actually out on this country. You could walk into a cave in some of the spots where we were shooting and just go for a little walk, you’d be in a cave and there’d be rock art that had been there for whoever knows how long just there. I mean, wild.

What would you most like for audiences of this film to take away from it?

JACOB: Pride.

SIMON: Yeah. I agree. I think the film is going to be confronting for a lot of people, but I think essentially after the time of processing the film, I would hope that stories like this give people a sense of pride in the history and the culture of this country. I hope it can start to heal the wounds that are there from the brutality of colonisation and people can start to embrace and respect the richness, depth and complexity of the Indigenous culture that existed on this land that we all know and inhabit together for over 60,000 years.

What do you have in terms of upcoming projects? I was wondering how you might be navigating through the pandemic…

SIMON: I am slowing down and focusing on the things that are most important to me, which is connections and relationships with friends and family. And also a connection with land, with place. Because we can’t travel so much, I think that people are more aware of the beauty and the power of this country. I did a film at the end of last year with an Australian artist, Del Kathryn Barton. It’s her debut feature film, and that was a wonderful experience as well. I look forward to seeing the end result of that, which will probably be in a couple of months.