High Ground highlights the power of storytelling to heal our history

28 Jan 2021

Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer and storyteller, Teela Reid, discusses the importance of story telling and honest conversations.

High Ground highlights the power of storytelling to enable healing through truth-telling. The challenge is whether this country can handle the truth at the heart of this film’s story; confronting Australia’s unfinished business with First Nation’s, requires a reckoning with how power and privilege functions in our society. High Ground is the key to unlocking an honest conversation about our history. 

For First Nation’s people, our stories are sacred. They connect us to this time and place and link us to our lands, waters and skies – since time immemorial. When it comes to truth-telling about invasion and colonisation, High Ground highlights how the onus is not just on First Nation’s people, but there is an obligation on white Australia to step up and hold space to enable conversations grounded in truth. 

I was captivated by this film in early 2020 having witnessed a clip circulating on social media of the cast introducing the story at the Berlin Film Festival. It included some of our greatest storytellers such as Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika, Simon Baker, Aaron Pederson and rising talent Jacob Junior Nayinggul, being interview by international media. It wasn’t your average yarn about how well the film might be received at the Hollywood box office or its potential for making big bucks. 

Instead, the cast and crew, led by producers Maggie Miles and Stephen Maxwell Johnson, were reflecting on how High Ground might illuminate the importance of Australia’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, through their lived experiences. Without any inhibition, the magnificent Marika commanded attention, as he stood tall above the panel (Bilma in hand – aka Clap Stick), and gave a classic depiction of the process of Makarrata – a Yolgnu phrase, meaning the coming together after a struggle, he described as – ‘the law of the land.’ 

A pivotal moment for me, was when Baker shared his dismay at the Australian government’s initial dismissal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. His reaction was clearly not scripted. Shortly before this, I had just published my first essay: 2020, the year of Reckoning, not reconciliation. It’s time to show up! Little did I know my work would soon fall into the hands of Baker – a serendipitous moment. Was Australia ready to have a bold conversation about race, power and privilege? 

In November 2020, after considerable anticipation as COVID19 delayed the Australian premiere of High Ground, I had the chance to attend a special screening in Sydney, on Bedegal Country. The film immediately reveals how raw our collective wounds remain, as scenes of massacres lay bare the brutality of colonisation, we are forced to feel the ache of our Ancestors spirit pulsating. The bloodshed on this soil is a reality First Nation’s people are all too familiar with – and one white Australia is yet to confront. 

This is a complex story that intricately links the many layers of our history, and the ongoing struggle between white and black Australia. It challenges us to watch with an open heart to truly listen to both sides of the dialogue necessary for truth-telling. It forces us to move beyond our comfort zone, if we are ready to tell an honest story about our national narrative. 

The tension in this story is symbolised when Grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana), a senior traditional law man and Moran (Thompson), an officer of the Crown, attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution which raises questions about power and authority over the land. 

I cannot comment on this film without reflecting on the fierce performance of Gulwiri, played by Esmerelda Marimowa. Her role was small, but mighty. Gulwiri represents the power of so many First Nation’s women I know; her words brief, but the impact is palpable.  Not afraid to take a strong stance, even if that means standing alone. Like all warriors, Gulwiri exudes a deep sense of spiritual connection, and this was a guiding force for Gutjuk, played by Nayinggul, who is equally remarkable. Their mutual love for the law of the land shines through the screen, pulling at your heartstrings, as epic scenes of the top end capture this continents’ stunning beauty. 

The work of the cast and crew beyond the screen is admirable. It highlights how each of us possess the power to step up and play our part in bringing to the fore a dialogue grounded in truth about our history. 

Like many others, I have committed my advocacy to the Uluru Statement from the Heart – an invitation to “walk with us” on a journey of reckoning towards enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution and to establish a Makarrata Commission to enable processes for treaties and truth-telling – this is the unfinished business of our nations story. Despite political inertia, a movement of the Australian people continues to elevate the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a national priority into the public consciousness. 

This is a heart and minds work. The people are ahead of the politicians when it comes to a desire to heal our past and reset the relationship between Australia and First Nation’s people. It is our collective responsibility to build connections among us that we would not ordinarily pursue. It might feel uncomfortable, but it is our moral duty to show up on the right side of history to tell the truth. High Ground does this. 

This film will ignite the spark in your heart for justice, but are you prepared to continue the conversation beyond the storyline to heal the unfinished business of our nation’s story? 

“Walk with us.”

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