Film & TV

Interview: Stephen Maxwell Johnson & Witiyana Marika

Glam catches up with director Stephen Maxwell Johnson and actor Witiyana Marika to chat about their latest project, High Ground.

A film of both sickening violence and stunning beauty, High Ground is a profoundly moving story of colonialism and ultimately reconciliation. Glam spoke to director/producer Stephen Maxwell Johnson and friend/ co-producer Witiyana Marika about the film.

So tell us about about the film and why you wanted to tell this story

SMJ: High Ground is a story set in 1919 that tracks the idea of the missed opportunity that took place between two cultures back in the day. It’s a manhunt. It’s a story about this country and this history. it’s a film about identity. It’s a story of freedom and love and hope. It was about putting a story out there that helps this nation rethink the Australian Story. We’re calling it a Northern, we like that idea! And it’s got this connective tissue all the way through Arnhem Land, east and west. It goes north and south. The story itself is a fiction, but so is history. And we decided to create a fiction in order to tell a deeper truth. Ultimately, the story is inspired by true events and true characters in our history. So it’s the narrative and the heart of this film is inspired by truth. It’s taken a long time to consult, to sit and talk and sing and even dance all elements and thoughts and ideas that flow through the storytelling to make sure that culturally we got the language and representation correct.

WM: It was fiction but, in the real story my father’s Mother clan, Dhalwaŋu, was massacred at a place called Gan Gan. When I grew up, I heard some stories from my Father. My father told me, his Brothers told us, that they were they were massacred at Gan Gan and then two men survived and ran into the water and got the same trick with the rashes, and they survived that way.

SMJ: That scene where the little boy hides in the reeds and breathes through the lily tube, the rashes there, there’s a lot of instances where apparently policemen or cattlemen would ride in with the intent on murder and often camps were empty and families and people were hiding in the billabongs breathing through the lilies. So that happened in other areas as well and it was an inspiration we took for our story and, as you heard, Witiyana has a direct association with his family who were murdered back in history. So it’s potent, it’s real, it’s still alive in people’s minds. There are old people out there for whom it’s essentially happened within their time. So the memories are still there, still alive and still sad.

The film has so much to say about racism and colonialism are what messages or lessons do you hope that audiences, especially Australian audiences, walk away from this film with?

WM: Well, my aim is to reconcile and being a unity and to lead forward. And education for the young generation so they grow up through this story. When I was growing up, I heard other stories, you know, but back here, it’s just my story now, what I’ve been told by my father and I made it into that film. But it’s education and leading forward and reconcile that we can leave two people in unity, harmony and unity for future.

SMJ: To follow on from that there are missed opportunities still happening in this country. It’s a disgrace how the Uluru statement is being pushed aside. We have an opportunity to embrace the oldest living culture on Earth, which essentially is a ticket to immense knowledge and connection to the environment in this world that we live in. It’s a great shame that we can’t celebrate it and participate in it with it, respect it and nurture it and nourish it and take it forward as part of who we are, the true identity of this country. It’s a primal cradle of beauty, it really is a stunning place. Country is a character in the film. We were always going for a story in a film that was immersive and the soundtrack and the visuals and the landscape, it was all about creating that connection.

WM: Up on the cave, it is a very sacred place and when my grandfather had sat there, nagi family, the old man, my uncle is buried there, near the cave. It’s critical.

SMJ: It’s another beautiful example of the connections. Witiyana is literally sitting in that cave, playing the part of the old man, but for thousands of years his family have actually sat in that cave and painted in that cave and lived on that country and that’s absolutely amazing. And a lot of the places we filmed in Arnhem land, there has not been a filming happen on country before. Families right across, Bininj, Jawoyn and Yolŋu people, all the clans, the tribes, the families, the permissions and the respecting and the good will of wanting to tell this story was quite incredible. For me, I’m always learning, always listening and on a journey and it was very inspiring. Chris Anastassiades who is the writer, has been working with me all these many many years and with us on this film and it was always about making sure we did the work, we listened to the stories and we created a screenplay that was a reflection of that being immersed in those stories and inspired by those stories.

The film had its premiere at the Berlin film festival earlier this year. Did getting feedback from people from Germany alter your perception of the film in any way?

SMJ: Well it’s very interesting that one but we’ve all grown up hearing about the holocaust and it was interesting how I had some conversations with people saying ‘well you had the same thing happening there with indigenous people’. It was literally genocide. It was literally a campaign of murder and dispossession that is beyond comprehension. Just the work of the Queensland native police force for example, we’re talking tens of thousands of kills there. It was interesting actually physically being Berlin where there is the memorabilia, the cemetery, that history and all the photos. There’s a connection in quite a disturbing way.

WM: Showing that film over there and having a red carpet was something special. That’s the first time for me. I’m grateful to Mr. Johnson for choosing me and Maggie Miles, and Chris, and Jack Thompson who wanted me to be a part of that. And David Gulpilil, he was sick so he passed on that I should take care of his role.

SMJ: Yeah that’s actually really beautiful because David was originally in my lookbooks and the stories as playing the part that Witiyana plays. Witiyana and David share a special, deep relationship and have responsibilities for each other through the family. It’s almost like the baton was handed across because David was unwell. I mean all of that stuff is quite amazing really, just how we cast the film.

WM: And we worked with top stars.

SMJ: Yeah Simon Baker, Jack [Thompson], Ryan Corr, Caren Pistorius and Aaron Pedersen. I mean what a cast! What an ensemble of wonderful actors who were all over there committed from the heart to being a part of this. Simon’s a very old friend of mine and he brought so much creativity and positivity to the process he immersed himself in the country and the people and the moment and I believe he delivers something quite extraordinary. I mean to work with Jack Thompson, screen living legend, and to have his guidance, his support and the other actors just to have the godfather there to look up to, to be reassured by and certainly just for me to have that support really in lots of ways was very special.

Interview by Jordan Ellis

High Ground releases on January 28th.

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