High Ground

Table of Contents

  • Essay 1: What is the significance of the title of Johnson’s film?
  • Essay 2: ‘High Ground suggests that some conflicts can never be resolved. Discuss.
  • Essay 3: “He needs to learn his place.” What does Gutjuk learn over the course of the film?
  • Essay 4: What is the significance of the title of Johnson’s film?
  • Essay 5: “The characters in High Ground keep their true motivations hidden.” Do you agree?
  • Essay 6: How is violence used differently by the characters in Johnson’s film?
  • Essay 7: “You can’t share a country.” ‘High Ground is a scathing indictment of Australia’s colonial history.’ Discuss.
  • Essay 8: “The importance of trust and loyalty is the core of this film.” Do you agree?

Essay 1: What is the significance of the title of Johnson’s film?

“We don’t always get to choose how we start, but we do get to choose how we finish,” Gutjuk’s evocative messages underscores the importance of the moral “High Ground” when faced with the adversities in life. Stephen Johnson’s hauntingly realistic portrayal of the tensions between the Aboriginal communities and the white colonisers in High Ground encapsulates the cruelties and conflicts between the two parties. The title of the film, High Ground, is therefore symbolic of the physical depiction of the isolated Indigenous communities, as well as the symbolic message reminding the audience of the importance in doing the right thing. Set in the 1930s, cultural clashes and violence are evident as individuals seek for control, depicted through attempts to gain advantage or ‘high ground’ over one another. Yet, Johnson recognises efforts and attempts to reconcile the vastly different cultures. Ultimate, the film represents a journey to seek for a sense of identity, and moral goodness to transcend violence and hatred.

Johnson’s strategic use of the Northern Territory landscape outlines the means in gaining dominance through having elevated positions. The opening sequence of the film captures the vivid sensory experiences, with a wide shot panning over the vast and arid terrain of the Australian outback. Sounds of Aboriginal music emerges as the camera continues to explore the landscape. However, the open spaces and the rugged domain also serve to emphasise the struggles faced by characters. In particular, the terrain acts as the witness of the bloody confrontations between the “black [fellas]” and the “white fellas”. While the natural and untouched landscape signifies the means in which Aboriginal people “look after the land”, British colonisers want to claim the land, justifying their act through building a ‘civilisation’. As Travis “see everything” seeing that he has “the high ground”, such wide vision immediately establishes the control and influence that the colonisers have over the Aboriginal community. Yet, the erupting gunshots ironically does not come from him but those who are undergoing the “peaceful expedition”. The colonisers’ cowardice prompt them to use violence, despite declaring that “no-one shoots but [Travis]”. While it is indeed that “When [one’s] got the high ground, [they] control everything,” Johnson further highlights the horrid nature of human beings in a symbolic sense.

The “high ground” is also a reflection of moral goodness, as suggested by characters’ attempt to reconcile the cycle of violence and pain. Experiencing both the loss of his “beloved daughter” and his family, Darrpa’s immediate concern is to “heal [Baywarra]”. His benevolent nature directly contradicts the vengeful nature of Baywarra, preferring to “make peace”. Grandfather Darrpa is seen to be a symbol of wisdom and cultural traditions, preserving the importance of kinship and family to those who have survived the horrendous massacre. In their negotiation with the white colonisers, Grandfather Darrpa highlights the importance of law that comes from “the soil” and “from Mother Earth”. By standing his ground against the violent white men and their guns using his words alone, his method to counter the oppression placed upon his family suggests a means to break this intergenerational violence. Claire’s willingness to learn and embrace the culture of the Yolngu people suggests a true possibility for change albeit the tension which exist between the two communities. While it is “not really [her] choice” in regard to the ways in which the Aboriginal people are treated, she nonetheless helps them in ways that she can. By firmly reminding Gutjuk that he “[has] to go”, her kindness and compassion implies the possibility for reconciliation. Through figures from both cultural backgrounds, Johnson highlights the importance in the goodness of individuals’ hearts for possible bonds to form.

While the journey for identity and moral goodness is inherently obvious for some, it does not come easy for others. While having to direct involvement in the massacre of the Yolngu people, Travis’ participation contributes to a sense of guilt that continues to haunt him. “Seventeen dead”, with some being “just children”, the horrors of witnessing the cruelty of his own people leave him to take on Gutjuk as a mentee. He transcends the invisible barrier between the colonisers and Aboriginal people through communicating with Grandfather Darrpa and Baywarra. When faced with the question of whether Baywarra’s “family [would] be safe” if he chooses to leave, Travis’ honest response, “I don’t know” suggests that his conscience and sense of responsibility to the Yolngu people. Gutjuk himself, is a subject of the violent confrontations, as the past trauma remains a scar in his heart. Yet, he is taken on as a “mission boy” and is cared for by Claire and Travis, thus introducing him to the possibility of equal treatment by the white fellas. Gutjuk’s name, which “means hawk”, suggests a spiritual and symbolic connection to transformation and growth. Previously known as Tommy, Gutjuk truly learns to face his identity and trauma as he identifies with the name he was given at birth. As a sniper, Travis is also associated with the hawk. Both individuals eventually learn to take actions based on their beliefs, with Travis sacrificing himself for Gutjuk and the latter coming to terms with the violence his community is subjected under. Johnson thus presents the trials and tribulations that both Travis and Gutjuk must undergo to find the sense of self beyond the ugly nature of violence.

In conclusion, the film’s title is suggestive of the tensions existing between both parties. It also recognises the attempts to reconcile the past of violence, and how individuals manage to break free of the rampant hatred to stay true to their moral goodness and responsibility. As the film ends with the close-up shot on Gutjuk and Travis’s hands gripping on one another, suggesting the possibility for mutual bonds and understanding to form. The last line of the film, “Gutjuk”, is a reminder of the hawk symbol, recognising the importance of having the moral high ground to break free of the bounds of violence and hatred.

Essay 2: ‘High Ground suggests that some conflicts can never be resolved. Discuss.


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