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As acclaimed historian Henry Reynolds, old friends and I began asking: “Why weren’t we told?”, as it gradually dawned on us that our Cootamundra High School classmates from the Aboriginal Home had been part of the Stolen Generation.
Years later, at a Reconciliation dinner in May 1988, these Aboriginal women told us that they would not have returned to the town had they thought we knew the truth back then.
Yet we should have known, just as all Australians should have known, that this big south land was not terra nullius as Cook claimed in 1770.
Nor was it ever ceded to the British by the Aboriginal inhabitants, who were forcibly dispossessed of their traditional lands by the British, enslaved or killed, with their murderers suffering no legal ramifications.
Long-time collaborators Stephen Maxwell Johnson and Witiyana Marika have now made a film about this significant aspect of Australian history that we were never taught in school: the brutal frontier wars fought between the colonial invaders and the Aboriginal inhabitants. Writer Chris Anastassiades’ powerful screenplay about a fictional massacre of Aboriginal people in 1919 was informed by stories from various regions about such heinous crimes.
The film opens on a quite idyllic scene showing Baywara (Mark Garrawurra) teaching his young nephew Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) about their respective totems, the snake and the hawk. The serenity is abruptly shattered by the arrival of two Aboriginal stockmen who are being chased by police and armed station hands.
The ensuing melee turns into a massacre; Baywara is shot and young Gutjuk is apparently the only Aboriginal survivor. He is taken to Alligator River Mission Outpost by ex-army sharpshooter Travis (Simon Baker), who had seen everything clearly from his position up on the high ground. Travis, Sergeant Ambrose (Callan Mulvey) and Father Braddock (Ryan Corr) are the only white survivors.
Twelve years on, Gutjuk (now played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) has been taught to speak English by Braddock’s sister, Claire (Caren Pistorious), who has mastered sufficient of the local dialect to converse with the Aborigines who live at the mission. When word comes that a group of Aboriginal renegade warriors led by Baywara (Sean Mununggurr) have been attacking settlers, Travis and Ambrose are charged with hunting down this “wild mob”.
Memories of the 1919 massacre linger. Grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) is still grieving the loss of his family. He requests a meeting with “the crown’s representative” police chief Moran (Jack Thompson, all decked out in his ceremonial white uniform, complete with helmet) in an attempt to broker a non-violent solution, but is treated with blinkered, paternalistic condescension. (Shades of Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart?)
Spouting such questionable statements as “civilisation is built on bad men doing bad things, clearing the way”, Moran clearly does not comprehend Dharrpa’s call for makarrata.
Gutjuk’s cheeky translation and explanation of Moran’s words are both amusing and perceptive. Needless to say, no agreement is brokered and the situation escalates.
More characters are introduced, and allegiances are tested with every new twist and turn of the narrative. Walter (Aaron Pedersen) is announced as “a native Queensland policeman … he doesn’t make mistakes”.
Esmerelda Marimowa is outstanding as warrior Gulwirri, who, having escaped brutal abuse at the hands of white settlers, is now merciless in her revenge. Indeed, she and Claire Braddock could teach the males a lot! Some scenes were filmed in and around Cannon Hill, where Esmerelda lives with her community.
Producer-actor Witiyana Marika is a Yolngu man, a senior leader of the Rirratjingu clan based in Yirrkala, northeast Arnhem Land, where High Ground was filmed with the permission of the traditional owners.
Andrew Commis’s cinematography captures the exquisite beauty of this land in every frame. Chris Goodes’ sound scape is a blend of nature and unobtrusive, appropriate music.
As the credits attest, many local Aboriginal people worked on the film as cast and crew; the production was supported by many Indigenous bodies.
In the words of Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu AM: “High Ground is a both-ways film, First Nations and Balanda. It depicts a time of trouble in Australia; it honours our old heroes, reminds us of the past and the truth of our joint history in the country. I hope that this film can play an important role in Australia’s national conversation towards a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution so that all our children will walk in both worlds, never forgetting the past.”
From its humble beginnings in 1989, Bangarra Dance Theatre has become one of the most successful First Nation companies in the world. “Bangarra” is a Wiradjuri word meaning “to make fire”, hence the title of this documentary directed by Wayne Blair to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the company.
The story of Bangarra is also very much the story of the Page brothers: David the storyteller and composer, Stephen the choreographer and Russell the dancer. Their childhood reminiscences of growing up in a Brisbane suburban family of 12 children are illustrated with entertaining footage from David’s Super-8 camera of them all performing. Little wonder three of the siblings ended up at Bangarra.
Through the fusion of traditional and contemporary dance that developed as their trademark style, Bangarra told their people’s story, from the Dreamtime to the present. For 29 years, Stephen was the artistic director. David was resident composer for 27 of these years and Russell the company’s star dancer from 1991 to 2002. Firestarter showcases excerpts from Bangarra’s stunning repertoire and David’s acclaimed solo show Page 8, plus footage of the 2000 Olympics opening ceremony that Stephen co-choreographed.
Family members, close friend Wes Enoch and various Bangarra colleagues contribute intimate anecdotes and observations about the brothers, their work and their private lives. We see them as the warm-up act to Paul Keating’s seminal Redfern speech in 1992.
Much of this is joyous and triumphant. Yet there is the undeniable effect upon the whole Bangarra family of the assimilation policy that spawned the Stolen Generation: Aboriginal children deliberately removed from their parents, their land, their language, their culture. The ensuing breakdown in bloodline and the gutting of the culture has had traumatic consequences on generations of their descendants.
Add to this the endemic racism in Australia, so clearly demonstrated by the shameful treatment of Indigenous sportsmen, and it’s not surprising that this heritage has brought tragedy to many Aboriginal families. Despite their artistic successes, the Page family is no exception.
At the 2016 Helpmann awards Stephen spoke from the heart about having lost Russell and then David to suicide. His grief was raw, tangible. He has since handed over the artistic reins of Bangarra to long-time company member, Frances Ring. Like High Ground, this film is testament to the resilience of our First Nations people and to the urgent need for truth-telling about the past 250 years, not just taught in schools, but acknowledged by the whole Australian community, starting with Parliament. Such recognition is long overdue.
Sally Ingleton’s topical documentary provides an intimate insight into the ongoing campaigns to save the Takanya/ Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania from logging; the Central Queensland campaign against Adani led by Birri traditional owner Ken Dodd and his supporters at Camp Binbee; and the young Castlemaine activists who began the School Strike 4 Climate movement.
A retrospective look at victories won by activists last century in Australia includes footage of the 1970s Green Bans that the Builders Labourers Federation, led by Jack Mundey, imposed on 54 sites to protect the environment, our heritage and residents’ rights from avaricious property developers.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the spectacular Franklin River was threatened with flooding by the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission.
Led by Dr Bob Brown, a major protest movement successfully blockaded the river, thwarting the proposed dam. The Franklin is now fully protected by its inclusion on the World Heritage List.
In 1979, the Terania Creek rainforest, a site of major significance to the Bundjalung traditional owners, was threatened with logging. The largest remaining tract of subtropical rainforest in the world, Terania Creek is now a national park, saved by a tenacious human blockade.
In 1998, the building of the Jabiluka uranium mine on Mirarr land in Kakadu was stopped by eight months of non-violent direct action by the traditional owners and thousands of volunteers from all over Australia.
Yet, the Australian government and multinational corporations continue to plunder our country’s vast natural resources for dubious short-term financial and political gain, ignoring the facts and advice presented by climate scientists that we are fast running out of time to combat climate change. The Doomsday Clock is stuck at 100 seconds to midnight.
Little wonder that 14-year-old Milou Albrecht and her friends in Castlemaine, inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, began their own Friday school strike.
Three years and three major strike days later, the School Strike 4 Climate movement continues to grow and empower this new generation of activists. It gives one hope to see these teenagers confidently address large rallies and confront politicians.
They are candidly scathing in their assessment of the latter, declaring them “too frightened to do more”, even though Australia is being ravaged by fire, dust storms and torrential rain.
At Camp Binbee, Ken Dodd wryly recounts how the old people predicted that mining would poison the water, the air and the people.
He didn’t think it would happen so soon, but he and the many volunteer activists, young and old, are determined to impede work at the Adani site as much as possible to delay the commencement of mining.
Their common goal is to defend the planet against inaction on climate change. One young activist recently lost her mother and is determined that she will not lose her remaining mother, Earth. Similarly passionate about Mother Earth are the Tarkine activists. They, too, come from various backgrounds: teachers, doctors, social workers, scientists, retail workers, musicians and artists. No merchant bankers or corporate CEOs. She shows us coupes of magnificent old growth forest wantonly felled for woodchip, with countless animals’ habitats callously destroyed. The advent of smart phones and the internet has enabled activists such as Dr Lisa Searle to livestream video of their activities worldwide. Ingleton includes such footage in this important documentary. Hearing activists explain their commitment is inspirational. Hearing conservative politicians and shock jocks rail against striking school students is frankly risible.
Tricia Youlden is a retired teacher
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