Content warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers may find sections of this conversation distressing as this film depicts white police massacring clans on Arnhem Land in the early 20th century. They are also advised that this story contains discussion of a person who has died.
When senior Rirratjingu songman Witiyana Marika answers NME’s call, he immediately, albeit politely, puts the phone back down. The actor, co-producer and senior cultural advisor for forthcoming film High Ground has had to change his plans to care for a younger relative. It should come as no surprise that Marika’s familial duties take priority over promoting a major motion picture: Marika is a founding member of influential Australian rock band Yothu Yindi, named for a kinship term that in his mother tongue, Yolngu Matha, honours the mother-child care dynamic.
Marika is one of many people who have moulded High Ground, a film that was 20 years in the making. It premiered at Berlin International Film Festival last year, screened at Sydney Festival earlier this month – and will arrive in Australian theatres tomorrow.
Directed by Marika’s old friend Stephen Maxwell Johnson – the director of Yothu Yindi’s ARIA award-winning music video ‘Djapana’ – and written by Chris Anastassiades (Yolngu Boy), the action-thriller was filmed across lush sacred lands with the permission of First Nations landowners, all of whom were executive producers on the film.
The story of High Ground, set in Arnhem Land after World War I, is based on true events: massacres that took place all over Australia during the Frontier Wars. The plot follows young Indigenous man Gutjuk – played by first-time actor and West Arnhem Land ranger Jacob Junior Nayinggul – who forms a complex relationship with white ex-soldier Travis (Simon Baker) as they track the warrior Baywara (Sean Mununggur).
When NME finally connects with Marika, he passionately expresses his desire to re-educate our youth on the history of white colonial violence, a history that is yet to grace the pages of Australian school textbooks. He first learnt about the white “horsemen” who massacred his grandmother’s clan, Dhalwaŋu, when as a teenager he journeyed to do ceremony with his grandfather, Birrikitji Gumana, on their homeland Gäṉgän.
“I didn’t learn it from the school,” he says. “My grandfather brought all the nephews, sons and daughters to Gäṉgän. There were over 100 people that had passed away.”
Marika and his dear friend, relative and Yothu Yindi co-founder Dr. M. Yunupingu later returned to Gäṉgän to visit their grandmother, hoping to learn more about the massacre that took place in the early 20th century. “In the early, early, early, early days we were walking and we were searching, researching,” he says. He remains driven by the desire to correct current misunderstandings of Australian history.
With NME, Marika discusses his action-thriller influences and the themes of anger that lie within High Ground, as well as how the film brought traditional landowners from Arnhem Land together.
Congratulations on the forthcoming release of High Ground. How are you feeling about its release?
I am very, very overwhelmed, and so happy that I can tell this story to the world.
I was surprised to hear that this was Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Esmerelda Marimowa’s first time acting on-screen. They gave very strong and moving performances.
It was very good to connect [with them]. From eastside to northern Arnhem Land and from west, that’s how I wanted to connect people. Our dream and our vision was to connect everyone through this movie: east, west, south and north.
That’s very special.
This movie is not just for us, you know? But for all Arnhem Land.
That’s a massive feat: to bring so many people together.
Yes. Our vision was to make something Northern. We don’t call it a Western; we call it a Northern action-thriller movie.
Did you have any favourite action-thriller movies that inspired you while you were working on High Ground?
Zulu! It’s an African film. Back in the ’70s when we were watching that movie, there was something about the power… and the power of the fight. It was very special.
There’s a moment in this film where Gulwirri (Marimowa) says to Gutjuk (Nayinggul): “Your anger is all you have.” What lessons have you learnt about anger throughout your life?
Anger is always there, but not expressed through the physical, you know? But we show it through film, with freedom; that’s how we connected everyone to tell our story in this movie. It’s an education for children, an education on how to be strong and survive and move on, and to move as one.
I think it’s important to acknowledge and feel anger, rather than pushing it down. Have you used this film as a way of processing this collective anger together?
Yes… yes. [Yothu Yindi] took the music to the world, and now I’m taking the film to the world. And still performing and still telling stories, you know, about how we should live together: in unity.
I read that Dr. M. Yunupingu felt your song ‘Treaty’ will “always be a reminding song for people”.
Is there anything that you would like to remind audiences of when they see High Ground?
I’d like to think that this will be a movie that always will be in their heart and mind.
Do you have any stories for film in the back of your mind that you’d like to work on in the future?
Ah, well, maybe after this movie is released another company or, whatever, some directors will come along and grab me. [Laughs]
Hopefully they do. I would love to see some more movies from you, Witiyana.
I would like to make more movies of Australia – I would like to show Australia to the world.
High Ground will screen in Australian cinemas from January 28