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'High Ground' shows the richness and brutality of Australia's history

May 14, 2021
3 min read time

The origins of High Ground are found in the landscapes of Northern Australia where its director, Stephen Maxwell Johnson, grew up, and therefore the story's time period and concept hold deep meaning for him.

Written by Chris Anastassiades, High Ground follows Gutjuk, an aboriginal man who teams up with an ex-soldier who served in World War I to track down Baywara, who is considered the most dangerous warrior in the Territory—and Gutjuk's uncle. While this is the makings of a thriller, Johnson, who worked side-by-side with Anastassiades during the development of the film, wanted to show the richness in the land and the brutality of British colonizers during the 1930s.

“The film is fiction that draws from true stories,” Johnson says. “The characters in the story really happened and it was a process of constructing an entertaining narrative inspired by that.” Johnson also didn’t want a preachy story and he avoided forcing a point-of-view. Instead, the story is about finding one’s roots and allowing the viewer to be immersed in the film.

“I had heard of massacres, journeys, warriors and heroes—old, beautiful stories connecting all humans to this earth. That was my inspiration. That history wasn’t taught to me when I was younger,” Johnson states. The notion that this history was rejected didn’t sit well with him and so he sought to tell the truth and the real stories of his homeland.

“I want the [audience] to come out on the other side and rethink the Australian story.”

Finding the voices

Johnson has held deep and long friendships with people in Northern Australia, known as the oldest living culture on the planet. It was through decades of friendships and familiarity, as well as connections through producer Witiyana Marika, that he was able to sit down with older people and hear their stories and the experiences of their great-grandfathers.

There are countless films about this time period, so Johnson wanted to look at the resistance of the time from a different perspective. He wanted to flip it on its head and tell the story from the POV of an aboriginal man and his reconnection to his family and culture.

“It was their story they wanted to tell for a long time. Sitting down with old men and women... The wisdom and inspiration you get is profound and beautiful and deeply connected. It’s in my bones and how we’re all connected,” Johnson says, adding that, “Chris (Anastassiades) was on the journey—sitting with them, listening, learning. It was very much a collaboration.”

The collaboration didn’t end with the writer and director. Along with the conversations, they included their actors who also had a connection to the history, some of whom had relatives killed during the time period.

Even though they had a screenplay in English, when it came time to shoot, “Suddenly the English is gone and a different language is there, so that breathes fresh life into the scene. At the end of the day, beautiful things were improvised and that was all the process,” Johnson says.

Creating the narrative

The journey from concept to production was years in the making as they took their time shaping the script into something they liked and could afford to do. This wasn’t a script that Anastassiades passed to Johnson and there was never a timeframe that he was dealing with to get it produced and distributed.

Throughout the conversations, Johnson and Anastassiades would gather ideas, talk it through, and let these tales inform how they could best tell the story. On set, they used the script as a blueprint, handing the lines to the aboriginal actors, who took the lines written in English, translated them into their language, and were then given the freedom to play with the material to make them their own. This way, the actors could get into the space, bring their truth, and have their own connection and involvement as well, letting the story unfold in a very organic way.

Johnson knew how he wanted the film to look and feel, spending a great deal of time collecting, hunting and gathering the visuals of the story.

“It was always about the natural world; the soundscape. I wanted to show that humans are part of the land and cutting the film is about that experience,” Johnson says regarding the editing process, adding, “There’s a lot of footage and stuff we couldn’t get. We got what we needed though and worked with actors who hadn’t acted before. It was about capturing that energy of the world.”

It was important to Johnson to ensure every nuance was there; every eye contact seen.

Telling a controversial story

High Ground deals with a controversial period in Australian history. Marika stated his desire to re-educate the youth in the country on the history of white colonial violence, and Johnson’s meticulous approach to managing the subject stems from his desire to get the history right and respect those whose stories are not found in most textbooks.

He recognizes that he’s a “white fellow telling this story,” but it’s about two perspectives and trying to see the story through both. “It's about immersing yourself in that world and the stories and the people in them,” Johnson says. “It’s been a collaboration with family and friends. That was my process both ways, a collaboration that told the story.”

The sheer number of those whose stories Johnson wanted to learn and pay tribute to was hundreds of people. It was always about taking the time.

If a writer is telling a controversial story, Johnson advises, it’s important they immerse themselves in the history and take the time to sit down and learn about the history to ensure there is genuineness in the characters.

High Ground was nearly a decade in the making. This level of care shows authenticity throughout the story. See it on Digital and On Demand May 14th.

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