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High Ground, Australian ‘frontier western’ starring Jacob Nayinggul and Jack Thompson, to premier at Brisbane International Film Festival

Written by on October 3, 2020

High Ground, the spectacular and confronting instant Aussie classic— “not a Western, but a Northern”, as its director describes — first gripped audiences at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Then a global pandemic hit, and the story that reimagines Australia’s frontier war had its debut on home soil delayed.

That debut comes today when the film, shot in some of the most remote country in the world, is screened for its official Australian premier at the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF).

The BIFF screening comes after High Ground was this week brought home to Arnhem Land, where the film was shot, with special screenings in the communities of Gunbalanya and Yirrkala.

Through the crocodile-infested East Alligator River to Gunbalanya, a massive blow-up cinema screen was transported to the Aboriginal community in West Arnhem Land, 300 kilometres out of Darwin.

As the sun set, reflecting off the escarpment and flood plains, a local oval was transformed into an open-air cinema, with most of the community turning out for the show.

While coronavirus lockdowns kept an all-star cast including Simon Baker and Jack Thompson from attending the screenings, local Gunbalanya actor Jacob Junior Nayinggul was the man that people were keen to see.

“I was kind of nervous, but I was excited and my family enjoyed it very well,” Nayinggul said.

New to acting, Nayinggul is stunning in his portrayal of character Gutjuk, an Aboriginal man raised by a mission family after his family is wiped out in a police-led massacre.

“My grandmother nearly had a heart attack on that scene,” Nayinggul said.

“I just felt sorry for her.”

The story is a fictional reimagining, steeped in the stories of an Aboriginal resistance to white settlement drawn from Arnhem Land’s traditional owners and elders, including lands in Kakadu National Park.

“It’s the history of this country and showing it through the movie worldwide, from the little corner of Arnhem Land, but representing the whole of Australia and Tassie about what happened,” the film’s executive producer Witiyana Marika said.

For Marika, the 20-year process to create High Ground has been about correcting history: to reflect the stories his grandmother told him.

“It was something sad, but as I was growing up I thought maybe one day I’ll get to that point and I’ll show the world what happened,” Marika said.

“And then this man [Stephen Johnson] came along just at the right time.”

At that time, when Marika and his friend Dr M Yunupingu AC were part of Australian rock band Yothu Yindi, filmmaker Stephen Johnson shot the clip for their hit song Treaty.

Dr M Yunupingu passed in 2013, before he could see the film completed, but is remembered in the credits and his friends have stayed close to their original vision of the film.

“We decided to go with a fiction because it allowed us to open up the story in a sense and tell a greater truth,” Johnson said.

Johnson says Aboriginal elders and landowners from West to East Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park came together to contribute their family’s stories of settlement.

It’s a frontier western with the pace of an action film.

“There’s a thriller aspect to it. It’s not a Western, it’s a Northern,” Johnson said.

“It’s about really trying to put something out there that had entertainment value and was going to appeal to a wide audience,” Johnson said.

The film’s landscape looms as large as any character, and from lockdown in Melbourne, actor Aaron Pedersen said he was impacted by the country’s “great beauty”.

“It was mesmerising, but also the danger, and that’s how Indigenous people were able to align themselves to country. They knew the beauty and the danger,” Pedersen said.

Pedersen said the work feeds into a broader conversation around settlement Australia needs to have.

“I truly believe that that is the one thing that’s keeping us from growing up as a country and becoming the nation that we should become,” he said.

On Gunbalanya oval, the winds off the billabong rippled the projector screen — a dream sequence meeting the bush movie experience.

The audience was transfixed, barely registering the dogs bickering and snapping in packs through the seated crowd.

Traditional owner Jonathan Nadji was a producer on the film and one of those in attendance.

“When I watched it actually hurt,” he explained, bringing his fist to his chest.

He is hoping Australians and the world will embrace the film.

High Ground officially premiers in Australia at the Brisbane International Film Festival this week, with a wider cinema launch locked in for early 2021.

(Article Originally Published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation –

Laetitia Lemke (ABC News)

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