Exploring the world through global cinema

Fool Steps In Paradise

'Come, Ponsonby, we've a mountain to shovel.'

You may be familiar with the genealogy tv program, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the show’s researchers help celebrities trace their lineage and taking them to ancestral home towns and/or other relevant sites of interest. I recently caught the Jason Donovan episode, and though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting. The product of a British father and an Australian mother, he seems well-versed in his British heritage, but his estranged mother’s family was an almost blank canvas. Along the way, he would discover that his maternal great-grandmother was a star of the music hall in Melbourne, while an even more illustrious ancestor and wealthy landowner in Sydney’s Hawkesbury district during the early days of White Australian settlement was once tasked with constructing the first road through the Blue Mountains at the behest of then-governor Lachlan Macquarie. Even today, road building in these enormous jagged, natural rocky leviathans is no easy task. 200 years ago, it would have been sheer lunacy, but that’s precisely what William Cox, 30 convict labourers and 8 guards set out to do in 1814, with little more than shovels and unrealistic dreams. Yet there was method in the madness: the young settlement was suffering from a major drought and recent explorations to the other side of the range had revealed the arable land the colonists desperately needed to produce sufficient crops. 27 weeks later, the work was completed and Sydney’s future seemed assured.

“Though Donovan has never to my knowledge acted in anything I would consider remotely watchable, his family history proved to be a good deal more interesting.”

However, Australia’s convict history was far from rose-tinted and the means by which the fledgling colony would be made to survive of far greater ruthlessness than is typically taught in schools. The British government of the late 18th and early 19th Century, unable to entice enough willing settlers from the United Kingdom to Australian shores, resorted to enforcement. Suddenly, petty crimes that might have resulted in a small fine or even a simple caution were rewarded with a life sentence. The poverty-stricken were the obvious scapegoats, who quickly found that stealing loaves of bread suddenly meant geographic relocation and a decade of hard labour on the other side of the globe. The official line at the time was that this was simply a means of easing overcrowded prisons – a thinly-veiled deception that more than anything shows the lack of recourse victims had with the judicial system of the time: so desperate was the government to establish a colony there (other imperial powers of the time had also set their sights on the island continent) that they were perfectly content for the law to fall silent.

The infamous Port Arthur convict prison from Australia's darker days.

So it was that thousands of Britons were forcibly relocated to Australia and punished for having done so in labour camps. The more ‘serious’ criminals were shipped off to Tasmania, a rugged, isolated and inhospitable wilderness that even today has only been partially tamed. The infamous convict prison at Port Arthur, along the coast from Hobart, the capital, saw so much brutality and anguish that it is today considered one of the most haunted places in the country. It was here that Donovan discovered traces of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Lyons, who, two centuries earlier, had spent 10 years shackled in the service of his new colonial masters. Lyons, however, was a fortunate case. Not only did he survive his ordeal, but through a network of friends, was reunited with his wife and family and relocated to the Australian mainland a free man. For a great many others, Port Arthur was their descent into oblivion.

And yet even Port Arthur was not the remotest prison Tasmania had to offer. Repeat offenders found themselves sent to an even remoter facility on Sarah Island in the long and winding waters of Macquarie Harbour, in the west of Tasmania. Such was the fate of one Alexander Pearce, the subject of this week’s film:

Van Diemen’s Land

(2009) Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide

(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)

“The end of the world. A fine prison.”

Conditions on Sarah Island were so extreme that in 1822, the Irish-born malcontent Pearce and seven others, tasked with felling the surrounding forests to provide shipbuilders with high-quality wood, attempted to escape their exile. When plans to steal a moored whaling vessel fell through, the escapees, without much aforethought, plunged into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness intending to travel east to Hobart, some 225km away. Although Robert Greenhill, one of the convicts, could draw upon his many years as a sailor to provide navigational expertise, none present knew how to survive in bushland so inhospitable even the indigenous Australians largely avoided it, and when food supplies ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Few of the ill-fated expedition would survive to tell the tale. In Van Diemen’s Land, we join the convicts on the day of their escape attempt and follow the grizzly events that ensue.

The fateful eight, tasked with felling trees for the colonial shipbuilders.

When an escape attempt goes wrong, the fugitives are forced to retreat inland - where their problems really begin.

At first, spirits are high.

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The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia, and it was only through this film that I myself became familiar with this dark chapter of White Australia. Van Diemen’s Land inspired me to fire up my browser and learn more, with the realisation that in movie terms, I was watching the middle part of a trilogy. Part 1 would have dealt with Pearce’s repeated offences condemning him to slave labour on Sarah Island. There, he would continue to prove unruly for the authorities, practicing his talent for theft and disruption, ultimately finding himself on work detail felling trees in Macquarie Harbour and seeing an opportunity for escape. Part 3 would have dealt with the consequences of his actions, including one final adventure, which the last sequence of Van Diemen’s Land briefly covers. Director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, however, appears to be fixated upon the middle part of the story, and while the moment when Pearce acquired a taste for human flesh strikes an undeniable discord with all but perhaps the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea, I can’t help feeling that it’s a little like telling the tale of Ned Kelly focusing only on the killings at Stringybark Creek. Only a few captions either side of the film quickly fill in the blanks, hinting that there is more to the story. Nonetheless, ‘Part 2’ is well-crafted for what it is and sheds a memorable, yet gloomy light on this hitherto forgotten saga.

“The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia”

auf der Heide wisely chooses a cast of unknowns to inhabit the fateful eight, which ensures the audience will accept their alter egos at face value. Oscar Redding, perhaps the best-known, creates an Alexander Pearce just possibly capable of redemption, up until the moment he agrees to sacrifice a member of the party for food, while Arthur Angel portrays a Robert Greenhill you wouldn’t want to be within twenty miles of when it came time to sleep. The rest of the cast fill out the remainder of the ill-fated group with similarly creditable performances, with the Scottish characters delivering their lines in Gallic alongside the 18th Century English dialect to underscore Australia’s role as a dumping ground for convicts all across the British Isles. The string-powered score, often more sound than symphony, meshes well with the bleak, washed-out picture to strongly evoke the dark mood of the piece. There are no archetypal heroes, only desperate human animals hastening the decay of civilisation’s thin veneer. Filmed on location in south-central Tasmania, the authentic natural backdrop does much on its own to sell the concept that the escapees are not only at the end of the earth as they themselves suggest, but that the land is cold and unforgiving – just as much today as it was in 1822. If I have issues with the film, therefore, it’s the storyline.

The world beyond the prison is no picnic either.

All in the eyes: Arthur Angel as the ever- 'practical' Robert Greenhill.

Starvation crosses the line.

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By focusing purely upon the escape attempt and the descent into cannibalism, the tale feels reduced somewhat into a B-grade exploitation horror. It doesn’t provide suitable build-up to properly explore the choices certain characters make throughout, though the documentation for this does exist. In consequence, I felt the leap to ‘the other meat’ was a little rushed, reminding me of an early South Park episode where cannibalism is the first rather than last resort. In addition, the full story would be more satisfying than some of the edited highlights ‘cannibalised’ for the purposes of a thriller. There is far more to the Alexander Drake story than we are witness to in Van Diemen’s Land. Undeniably, the issue of runtime comes into play here, however as I suggested earlier, there is enough scope for more than one feature. However, auf der Heide is the first to explore it cinematically, and perhaps this will spark interest in genuine Australian Gothic from here on. It certainly captures the tone and feel of that bleak world, taking strides towards tapping into a rarely explored period of Australian history that perhaps may now be brought to light free of the nationalist veil. Certainly any proud Australian and film fan should see Van Diemen’s Land for this purpose, and genre fans everywhere will appreciate what it does achieve. Let’s hope it’s a taster of things to come.

Further Reading

Oscar Redding as Alexander Pearce in 'Van Diemen's Land'.

Paul Collins of Australian newspaper The Age provided a good overview of Alexander Pearce’s life in A Journey Through Hell’s Gate.

If you’re going to see the film, I recommend reading only up to the point of the gang’s escape from Macquarie Harbour and saving the rest for later.

You can also visit Sarah Island, site of the convict facility where Pearce and his contemporaries were imprisoned by popping these coordinates into Google Earth: 42°23′16″S 145°26′55″E / 42.387889°S 145.448611°E. You’ll even be able to see the facility itself, courtesy of numerous user-contributed photos. Explore around the area for photos of Macquarie Harbour itself and some shots of the dense inland wilderness the escapees would have traversed.

Do You Wanna

A cursory search for films made in Aruba might lead one to think they are spoiled for choice. On further examination, however, this abundance proves to be chimerical, with almost every mirage listed bearing the unhelpful name ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme’. Yes, Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years. Who among us could forget the heart-warming wondrousness of Knock Out, the incredible and touching insight of Mercenary, or the mind-bending philosophical depth of Out For A Kill?

“Van Damme: that well-known Aruban film-maker who has delighted the world with his thought-provoking cinematic treatises on the human condition for the last 30 years.”

Quite. Thus I was left with slim pickings for genuine Aruban cinema and indeed only one film came staggering anywhere near the criteria of a proper local effort – and I’m still not sure it actually is – in the form of Marry Me. The premise of this – as it would turn out – nauseating short has to do with Jim, a man who might possibly be Fate’s punching bag, attempting to propose to his girlfriend on a beach somewhere. Oh yes – with ‘hilarious’ consequences. Well, at least it was shot in Aruba – as indeed I wanted to be by the end credits. You can watch this 5-minute fluff for free directly on IMDB here.

Next Time

Revenge makes perfect sense when you’re angry. The anguish gives you purpose. The pain gives you clarity. You’ll take the one who gave you that pain into that black abyss inside you – the void that threatens to swallow you up, the space where peace once reigned. A complete stranger just killed the person you love. They can’t be allowed to live.

But what if you then met the object of your revenge? What if you came to know them – their pain, their fears? Would you still have that clarity? Would you still be ready to kill? Discover the thought-provoking Austrian film, Revanche. I bet you can translate that without my help. See a subtitled trailer here:

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3 responses

  1. jasetv

    Huh? Port Arthur? That’s where some guy went ape with a gun and shot alot of people before being shot himself.

    I have to say that when I watched it, the setting and isolation reminded me of a Brazilian film, XYZ, the wrath of god. It is also a film where the environment swallows the characters of the film, though not escaped convicts, but Spanish conquisitdors.

    Sorry, can’t remember the first part of the title, but no doubt Spanish in origin.

    I’m not surprised it’s not part of the Australian High school curricula. Not only does it say that you’re all descended from a bunch of crooks, but also a some of you had the thirst for human flesh. Sparkling stuff.

    September 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    • Yes indeed. In 1996, Martin Bryant added a new chapter to Port Arthur’s brutal history – supposedly still Australia’s most brutal killing spree to date.

      Definitely Australian national pride wouldn’t sit easy with Alexander Pearce’s story, but I think the teens would take to it – I’d have paid much more attention in history class at school if that had been part of our studies. I’d love to see ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ make it onto the curriculum.

      As for the film, do you mean this one: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068182/? Sounds good.

      September 19, 2010 at 8:22 pm

  2. jasetv

    “Aguirre: The Wrath of God”. That’s the one. I remember watching it on video with my older brother. Surreal and viseral at the same time.

    NZ has only David Gray and Aromoana to compare with the Port Arthur massacre as it’s called.But Aromoana’s casulaties doesn’t even come close to that in Australia.

    It Must be something about small towns that cultivates the right atmosphere for repressed anger.

    September 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm

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