Written by: Heidi Shepler | May 13th, 2021
High Ground (Stephen Johnson, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
History is framed in a series of intensely personal tragedies and missed opportunities for humanity in Stephen Johnson’s High Ground. The first question in any period drama about imperialism with sympathetic white characters must be: to what degree does this film fall into the White Savior trap? And while the film isn’t perfect, Travis (Simon Baker, Here and Now), a white Australian man, is a fantastic deconstruction of the myth of the “good” colonizer. Likewise, the Arnhemlander characters are not made into magical, mystical beings whose spiritual goodness outweighs their humanity; not even the wise and politically savvy Grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika, also the film’s producer and senior cultural advisor).
The film begins with a depiction of everyday Arnhemlander life so normal and idyllic that the impending massacre feels heartbreakingly inevitable. Travis, an expert sniper and WWI veteran, sees immediately that at least two of his fellow white men are not interested in a peaceful conversation, and then watches as a full-scale massacre ensues. Women, men and children are shot indiscriminately while Travis races down from his vantage point (his high ground, we might say) to try to stop the killings. He kills one white man who casually asks him, “Did I get her?” after shooting the fleeing mother of a young child. He then finishes off another white man who was fatally wounded by an Arnhemlander spear.
All of this death happens in under five minutes of screen time, and we’re led to believe that the real time is probably even less. Throughout the sequence, the audience’s empathy is with the victims, obviously. We’re also invited to sympathize with Travis, because he never wanted any of this senseless murder to happen. But even this early on we see that his goodness is also his damnation; if he truly understands how evil it is to commit genocide, why did he not kill his compatriots before they killed so many people? Why, instead of pretending not to notice young Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), did he “rescue” him and take him away to be raised by missionaries? The answer is simple, and sad: because he’s a colonizer. It’s not possible to do the right thing when you’re operating from within an imperialist framework.
The only time the film truly falters is in its gentle portrayal of Christianity. Claire (Caren Pistorius, Unhinged) is just as invested in Gutjuk’s well-being as Travis is, which is believable since she raised him. But more than that, she learns to speak Rirratjingu, and warns Gutjuk not to trust white men. The pedestal the film puts her on is uncomfortable, considering the history of Christianity in Australia. This is also disappointing because we do get an acknowledgement of white women’s role in advancing Imperialism, when the main action of the plot is driven by the offscreen death of a white woman.
High Ground is the result of multiple decades of friendship and relationship-building between Stephen Johnson and Witiyana Marika, and that depth pervades the film in all its complexity. The result of their collaboration is simultaneously a condemnation of imperialism and an unflinching acknowledgement of the potential for good in all humans, even those caught up in evil ideologies. It’s a call to action, to understanding and to accountability.