Cannibal convict's tour of hell

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Van Diemen's LandAccording to film legend, there came a point during the shooting of Apocalypse Now at which director Francis Ford Coppola discarded the script in favour of a copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The parallels between book and film are of course deliberate and profound.

One gets the impression that something similar occurred during the creative gestation of Van Diemen's Land. This period drama about colonial Tasmanian folk antihero Alexander Pearce shares a similarly symbiotic relationship with Dante's Inferno.

'We access the story through Pearce's confessions,' says director Jonathan auf der Heide. 'It's as if he is drawing us into his own personal hell and giving us a guided tour. You follow him down through the spirals of hell until you meet Satan himself.'

The film's 'cheeky' allusions to the Inferno have a historical basis. The mouth of Macquarie Harbour was nicknamed 'Hell's Gates' by the Sarah Island convicts, a wry acknowledgement of the harshness of life on this penal colony.

But if life in the colony was hard, it was nothing compared to the unforgiving wilderness beyond. History records the cannibalistic measures Pearce and his fellow escapees adopted in order to survive after fleeing the colony. In auf der Heide's film, desperation takes the form of spiritual and moral corruption as a result of the cruel landscape.

'The further these guys go on the journey, the more they are taken over by the harshness of this place', he says. 'The landscape in the film represents the darkness of man, the brutality, and how they need to become like it if they are to be the last man standing.'

The old adage applies here, that the location is an important character (in this case, the title character) in the film. Like others before him (notably Peter Weir in Picnic at Hanging Rock) auf der Heide milks Australia's natural wilderness landscapes for all their ominous potency.

'First is the image of going down the Gordon River with these towering walls of trees, and how insignificant a man is compared to that. We used lots of wide shots to make the characters seem insignificant compared with the landscape. If you're going to take part in the battle between man and nature, you're going to lose.

'I'd done a tour down the Gordon River, and I saw what these guys were up against,' he adds. 'They came from a cultivated homeland of England, Ireland and Scotland, to this untamed, untouched land that time forgot, this ancient rainforest. It's an important aspect of colonial Australia, this relationship to the land.'

Oscar Redding, the film's co-scriptwriter and also the actor who plays Pearce in the film, says Pearce's simple humanity, and hence his vulnerability to the harshness of his circumstances, was the most important aspect of the character. 'The thing that seemed to make the story most interesting was for Pearce to be a pretty ordinary sort of guy who adapts and changes due to the circumstances that he's thrown into', says Redding.

'I don't think there are vast gaps between who these guys may have been and what their desires were, compared to mine. You get a sense that Pearce is not a psychopath. If he was, he'd probably be quite happy to continue. But there's an awareness in Pearce of his own humanity which has fallen almost completely out of his system.'

Such sympathy for the characters' unsympathetic actions was key. Auf der Heide does not see humankind as being innocent until corrupted by external forces; rather, the ease with which the characters are corrupted is due to what he sees as a human predisposition to violence, both for self-preservation and for its own sake.

'Is it human instinct to kill in order to survive?' he writes in his director's statement. 'I believe it's the very reason we're here today and consequently, underneath our veil of 'civilisation' is a repressed need for violence.'

'When I wrote that, I'd recently been attacked', says auf der Heide, revealing the personal basis of this decidedly bleak outlook. 'I was walking home with my friends, and eight teenagers took fence posts and, for the fun of it, smashed my face in. I had 12 fractures to my face, I was unconscious, I was hospitalised. It was terrifying.

'I couldn't get over it', he recalls. 'I thought, what is it in us as a species that does this? Is it because we used to have to kill to survive, but nowadays there's no need for that, and so there is this repressed violence within young males that they let go in brawls in pubs, or ... ?

'I wanted to open that to discussion. What happened to these men in 1822 is horrific, but are we any different today? If put under these extreme circumstances, wouldn't we kill in order to survive?'

These are existential but not entirely hopeless musings from the young director. 'I read an article recently in which [filmmaker] Steven Soderbergh said he felt art doesn't change anything any more: If Shakespeare could write these great tragedies that said "look at the way he acted and look what happened", why haven't we learned from that? But I do feel it's important to look at these stories, examine them, see what they meant.'

Which brings us back to the symbiosis between Van Diemen's Land and the Inferno. 'The Inferno was a sermon to mankind, saying we've strayed off the path to God,' says auf der Heide. 'I wanted to reiterate that. Back then, today, it doesn't matter. We're all just logs to the fire. We keep making the same mistakes.'

Still, 'I haven't got a pessimistic view of humanity', auf der Heide insists. 'There's always got to be hope. You've got to believe there is.'

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: van diemen's land, jonathan auf der heide, oscar redding, tasmania, cannibal, convict, Alexander Pearce



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A thoughtful and rich piece, Tim Thanks.

Joe Castley | 24 September 2009  

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