How far would you go?

By Josephine Sargent 21 September 2009
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New film sheds light on a dark corner of Australia’s colonial past.

It’s freezing. You’ve been walking for eight days through dense bush. Your food supply ran out four days ago. You have 10 days before you reach your destination. Turning back would mean facing the hangman’s noose. Would you do it? Could you eat human flesh, if refusing to do so meant certain death?

This is the theme explored by director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide in his latest feature film, Van Diemen’s Land, the true story of eight escaped convicts who struggle through the unforgiving Tasmanian wilderness in their bid for freedom from Macquarie Harbour in 1822.

The opening scene pans across a dark, wet and uninviting forest, followed by a close-up shot of a moustachioed mouth – eating greasy flesh. This few minutes of cinematography sets the scene for the rest of the movie.

Dressed in ragged, cotton clothes, simple boots and with no camping equipment, save for a few pots, the prisoners attack their superior and, after being sprung trying to escape, make a mad dash into the bush, gunfire ringing in their ears. Only one of the eight men will make it out alive.

Still sporting a mean pair of chops from his performance as sole survivor Alexander Pearce, actor and co-writer Oscar Redding (as seen in Sea Change, The Secret Life of Us, and Blue Heelers) says he would cry like a little girl if he found himself in his character’s situation. Then he turns serious. Oscar says his days growing up on a beef farm and killing beasts with his family taught him that “nature devours itself”.

“There’s this anticipation before something is killed,” Oscar says. “Then the moment happens and we’re skinning this thing. We’d all be sitting there, skinning… and it becomes an object, fulfilling a need.”

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” Jonathan adds. “Cannibalism is about as taboo as you can get. To characterise Pearce as a human being, not so very different in his essential nature to you or I, as a man who through extraordinary events did what he had to do to survive, is what makes this story interesting and relevant to an audience today.

 “Perhaps it’s not the anticipation of who is to be killed next, or the desperate fight for freedom that makes this story intriguing, but more so the questions it asks of its audience.”

Jonathan also hopes his audience will take away a renewed enthusiasm for Australian history.

“I want people to realise that our history is just as exciting as American history. There’s the gold rush. There’s hardship. We want people to be excited about our past by examining who we are as Australians. We are the result of this history. To look back now shows us where we’re going. We kept being known as the convict colony. We were embarrassed but now is the time to embrace it,” he says.

“For some reason the story of Alexander Pearce has never made it on to the big screen. When I first heard the story 12 years ago, it was where he was held captive and I witnessed the wilderness first hand. I was hooked at that point.”

In the film, Pearce is depicted as solitary, brooding and silent.

“We saw Alexander Pearce as unassuming – the men picked off the ones who were the most threat,” Jonathan says. “So Pearce knew if he kept a low profile he’d make it out – he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind.”

As part of his research into Pearce, Oscar travelled to the windy west-coast of Ireland to learn Gaellic, the convict’s mother tongue, grew his prized beard, and spent months reading the transcripts of Pearce’s confessions. Based on these historical records, an Irish voice over provides an insight into Pearce’s mind and Oscar was determined not to be influenced by other portrayals of the escapee as a cunning murderer with a taste for human flesh.

“People thought he was a blood-thirsty cannibal,” Oscar says. “But I think he was just an ordinary man… it could be me. We could become that thing.”

“Portraying Pearce as a monster is the easy story to tell and was a marketable product for 19th century audiences,” Jonathan says. “But today we demand honesty no matter how confronting.”

And confronting it is. This film is not for the weak stomached – tension continues to build as these unfortunate men are picked off one by one to sustain the rest for their journey. With only an axe and a knife, the killing scenes are ruthlessly realistic. There are no light moments to give respite from this harrowing tale of survival and desperation.

“In their bid for freedom they take us into a brutal world that confronts us with questions of our instinctual nature,” Jonathan says. “Is it human instinct to kill in order to survive? I believe it’s the very reason as to why we’re here today and consequently, underneath our veil of ‘civilisation’ is a repressed need for violence. Van Diemen’s Land not only explores Australia’s dark colonial past but it also questions our very idea of what it is to be human.”

Van Diemen’s Land opens in cinemas nationally on September 24.

Article: Cannibalism through history
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