Film In Preview
The story of the cannibal convict Alexander Pearce is not well known in Australia, let alone Tasmania where it happened in 1822. But it made such a mark on Tasmanian Jonathan auf der Heide, who heard the story as a teenager on a guided tour of the Sarah Island penal camp and the Gordon River, on the rugged mid-west coast of Tasmania, that he carried it with him for ten years hoping to make the story a film.
Auf der Heide, 31, moved to Melbourne at 21 to train as an actor, but then went to film school literally to make this film. His college project was a short version of this story and then he and actor friend Oscar Redding, who masterfully plays the Irish convict Pearce, wrote a feature script and went about getting it made.
â€œItâ€™s hard to believe we got away with it to be honest, going straight from film school to make the film as big and as epic as we had dreamt it,â€ says a satisfied auf der Heide. â€œBut many miles later with the producer on-board, we managed to get there.â€
And then thereâ€™s the invariably difficult subject matter of cannibalism. â€œTasmania doesnâ€™t like to look at the darker history so much; they want to look at the prouder moments rather than the more brutal ones.
â€œWeâ€™ve all heard about the plane crash in the Andes or the raft of The Medusa and other extreme survival stories, but not this one in our own backyard. A much more interesting story because it is a journey. Itâ€™s man versus nature than man versus himself.
â€œThese guys on the work party that escaped from Macquarie Harbour are the ghosts of our past walking through our landscape.â€
Despite the macabre subject matter and bleak outlook, the film is the rawest of survival stories â€“ there are even moments of great tenderness.
â€œI think what is most affecting about Oscarâ€™s performance is that he is just the everyman of the group. Heâ€™s not the leader or the charismatic frontman, but the unassuming everyday guy you donâ€™t bet on being the survivor.â€
This is the filmâ€™s greatest achievement; it humanises Alexander Pearce. His story until now has been either ignored, or heâ€™s been demonised as bloodthirsty psycho killer (see â€˜For The Term Of His Natural Lifeâ€™), therefore setting him apart from we ordinary citizens, who could never do such a terrible thing. The story was so wild that at first Pearce was not believed.
But this convict was an ordinary man, who stole several pairs of shoes and was shipped to an alien land. And if his situation wasnâ€™t already bad enough, he ended up in an even more hopeless predicament and behaved like a desperate man in the direst of situations - a life or death situation.
Itâ€™s not a comfortable film, it is searching in many ways and asks the viewer to answer a very unsettling question, â€˜What would you do?â€™ â€˜What could you do?â€™
â€œThese guys are looking into each otherâ€™s eyes across the fire thinking, â€˜Itâ€™s me or himâ€™.â€
What is all the more extraordinary is that this novice directorâ€™s first feature is a challenging all-location shoot, with not a single interior.
â€œWhen the characters look cold, or hungry or in pain thatâ€™s because they were. The actors suffered more than me.â€
The performances of all the cast, but particularly Redding and Arthur Angel; who plays sailor, navigator and group leader Robert Greenhill, are extraordinary. There is a lot of subtle work required - a lot of eye acting. Unlike the horror film where the danger is out there in the darkness, the real horror here is in the eyes of the man across the fireplace.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot you can do without dialogue â€“ these guys are starving and they are fearing death. I wanted the audience to consider the level of endurance required here.â€
The opening sequence of â€˜Van Diemenâ€™s Landâ€™ is pretty much perfect. Thereâ€™s a wide sweeping shot of a great rising forest of massive ancient trees and as you marvel at the awesome beauty, you realise how impenetrable it is and you canâ€™t help but imagine being lost in that forest.
â€œThese were guys, from the far away cultivated lands of England, Ireland and Scotland; they believed in heaven and hell and demons. Here they were in this alien territory; it must have been inexplicable to them.â€
â€˜Van Diemenâ€™s Landâ€™ opens September 27.