Exploring the world through global cinema

History

The Coming Of The Church Mountain

World On Film is currently on a break from its prime directive: to seek out episodes of cinema from across the globe and hopefully represent every country (a proposition you will quickly have recognised as being utterly mad). The definition of this raison d’etre is being stretched to breaking point during the respite so as to provide an excuse for other topics of personal interest, though certainly film is still the tie that binds them. This time around, we look at an example of film bringing an episode of history to life and the way it therefore provides a real immediacy to the event, even decades after the fact.

The island of Heimaey prior to 1973. The ancient volcanic cone of Helgafell stands to the right, a testament to the subterranean forces soon to be re-enacted.

Somewhere in the middle of the 1980s while I was in short pants and discovering the concept of libraries, I discovered the far-away and seemingly-unpronounceable island of Vestmannaeyjar (vest-man-ay-yar). The colourful children’s hardback, helpfully titled Volcanoes would, I hoped, promise just as much wonder and excitement about these powerful, world-shaping mountains of fire as had Felicia Law’s definitive work on the subject, also efficiently titled Volcanoes. In its namesake, a group of schoolchildren living on Vestmannaeyjar’s chief island of Heimaey were poised in the cold outdoor air to learn the complex, yet abundantly demonstrative science of volcanology. Such a school outing would be considered highly dubious at best in my home town, where the only time the ground exploded was when the local council blew up sections of a nearby hill in their quest for granite. The Icelanders however had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.

“The Icelanders [of Vestmannaeyjar] had two volcanoes on their doorstep, and one had literally exploded into existence only a few years earlier.”

The Fires Of Muspelheim

“We felt its hail of cinders long before we saw the volcano’s fire, glowing like a midnight sunrise through the mizzling rain.” – Noel Grove, An Island Fights For Its Life, National Geographic, July 1973.

Curtain of Fire: the initial eruption propels rock through a fissure 3km wide.

It was a cold and unexpected awakening that greeted the town of Vestmannaeyjar and its 5,000 inhabitants on the 23rd of January. At approximately 1.55 AM, the ground along the east coast literally tore itself apart barely a kilometre from the slumbering community and stretching 3 kilometres all the way down to the southern tip. Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance. Yet the drama was very much underway and soon, the outpouring of molten rock would confine itself to the north-east of the island, where it enveloped the farmland housing the local church. After less than a month of constant activity, the eruptions had formed a mountain 200 metres high – one that would continue to grow for the next 4 months.

Fortunately, Heimaey had seen tempestuous weather conditions in the days leading up to the eruption and all of the town’s fishing boats were moored in the harbor, ready for use. The population was therefore able to be swiftly relocated to the Icelandic mainland – primarily Reykjavik – where they would stay for the next several months as the volcano unleashed its fury upon their home. Some 200 locals would stay on to fight the sea of ash threatening to crush every household by its sheer weight, and, in the months to come, literally stop the flow of lava from destroying the harbour. With their whole industry based on fishing (in turn accounting for approximately 10% of the national total), the idea of letting nature take its course was never seriously debated. However, their battle would not be won easily.

Houses are swiftly buried by ash as the cinder cone rises above the town.

“Heralded by an ominous rumbling, a curtain of lava rose 150 metres into the night sky the entire length of the fissure, as though transforming Heimaey into a giant Hadean theatre awaiting the start of some hellish performance.”

Ash-covered houses with views of nearby Bjarnarey Island (above) lose their eye on the neighbours to an encroaching lava field (below) mere months later.

As the eruption continued, the geography of the island would be substantially altered, firstly by having its total size increased by 2.24 km², but more crucially, by nearly closing off the all-important harbour entrance. This, more than anything else, would signal the death of the settlement if it were not stopped, and with every passing day, the ever-expanding lava field to the north threatened to close the gap between the mainland and the long peninsula to the north that sheltered the port from extremes of weather. The danger to the town also increased dramatically a month into the eruption when the entire north flank of the volcano collapsed under its own weight. A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.

With both the crucial waterway and the settlement itself directly under threat, contingency plans were needed fast. Early ideas included cutting through the lowest point of the peninsula, effectively creating a new harbour, and bombing the crater. The former would be dismissed as too cumbersome while the later was determined to be likely as dangerous to the town as the river of fire itself. It would eventually be agronomist and fellow rescue worker Páll Zóphóníasson who proposed stopping the lava flow with seawater. With the help of pumping equipment already installed in the larger sea vessels, the islanders quickly began aiming their hoses at the encroaching mass. The process of nature was duly halted, with the gap no more than 100 meters and a massive lava flow having crushed half the town as well as destroying several fishing factories. Under the impact of the sprayed seawater, the edges of the lava flows became towering walls of solid rock, while the still-flowing rivers of fire behind were diverted away from the town.

“A seemingly never-ending ocean of lava now poured unchecked by even the mountain itself toward the town, accelerating the growth of the lava field, intent on closing the harbour forever.”

A nation's economy endangered as Heimaey harbour is nearly closed by lava.

Their livelihoods saved, the inhabitants of Heimaey were significantly less concerned about the massive devastation that lay in wait for them upon their return to the island. That same destructive coating of ash could after all be harvested to dramatically improve the local runway as well as provide solid foundations for new housing. The tempered volcano meanwhile would provide free geothermal energy for most of the decade – though initially, the sulphurous gases slowly escaping from the drying rock would render the atmosphere toxic, with one fireman rescuer asphyxiating in a cellar and becoming the eruption’s only victim.

By early July, the mountain, initially dubbed ‘Kirkjufell’ for standing where the church had months earlier, now officially known as ‘Eldfell’ (Fire Mountain), had ceased eruptions and towered some 220 metres above the landscape, its neighbour: the ancient cone of Helgafell, which had dominated the island’s fate when it exploded into being some 5,000 years earlier. 12 kilometres to the south-west, the island of Surtsey stood quietly in the half-mist – only 10 years earlier having risen angrily out of the water to frustrate the cartographers by becoming the nation’s southernmost point of land. Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.

“Over the next year, the townspeople returned, and set about the task of clearing away the ash from the home they would rebuild.”

On Film

Turning back the tide: islanders spray seawater onto the lava flow to save their town.

Several short films captured the latest chapter in the Vestmannaeyjar saga back in the 1970s. The Heimaey Eruption, from which the images you see here are taken, is one such example. Written and produced in 1974 by Alan V. Morgan, it gives a good account of the unfolding drama, thanks to some excellent footage. Viewers are given a brief overview of Iceland’s volcanism and the forces that are literally pulling it apart, before the action travels to Heimaey, where Eldfell is slowly flattening the town. Two other films if you can find them are Day Of Destruction, produced by Kvikmyndagerðin Hljóð og mynd, and Fire On Heimaey, produced by VÓK-Film hf (both in colour and having English narration).

Someone has posted The Heimaey Eruption to youtube, so never mind my rambling waffle – take a look for yourself:

Further Viewing

Gerhard Skrobek and Hermann Luschner produced some spectacular film of the eruption and its impact on both the town and the rescue workers. Having now made its way on to (where else?) youtube, you can view it here:

And here:

Further reading: July 1973's edition of National Geographic covers the story.

Thanks to the work of Morgan, Skrobek, Luschner and others, we have the story of Eldfell immortalized in sound and motion, providing that immediacy so important 37 years later when it all seems so distant and unreal: perhaps not to the people of Iceland, used to one of the most dynamic and rapidly-changing landscapes on Earth. How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever. How incredible then to actually be able to see the birth of Eldfell in 1973 and the indomitable spirit of the townspeople, who refused to let a volcano change their lifestyle. A child’s library book and its wonderfully vivid photographs would etch Vestmannaeyjar into my memory forevermore, but The Heimaey Eruption took me there, if only for 30 minutes.

“How amazing it would have been to have actually seen footage of the Tambora eruption of 1816 or indeed Krakatoa in 1883 – two eruptions that changed the world forever.”

*****

Still To Come On World On Film

Explorations into topics in and around the concept of film and the world it brings into your living room and the main series of reviews taking us to countries starting with ‘B’ begins with a tale of repressed sexuality, inner torment and discrimination in the Bahaman drama Float. All this and more in the upcoming weeks when World On Film continues.

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Scenes From A Festival

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Pusan International Film Festival for the very first time – PIFF being South Korea’s largest cinematic celebration, now in its 15th year. I say ‘attend’, though it was more of a whirlwind 24 hour flirtation, given that Busan, as it’s now spelled, is in the south-east of the country, and I live in the north-west. As such, I saw no celebrities, attended no special screenings, nor partook in any seminars. At the end of the day though, it’s all about films, and I did manage to catch three fairly decent efforts – one of which saw its world premier here – and generally soak in at least some of the atmosphere that any cinephile would enjoy, as well as walk away with a souvenir or two.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about films”

The action was spread across several cinemas and venues in downtown Busan, most notably Haeundae, the nation’s most popular beach. With time pressing heavily however, I confined myself to one area, that being Nampo-dong, a district famous for film and fish, with raw piscines unwittingly sacrificing themselves to provide the evening’s dinner. With the visit crossing over Friday and Saturday, it was a chance to experience both the weekend throng and the quieter weekday crowd of dedicated flicker-fans. It was little more than a snapshot, a cross-section of the full experience, but it was highly enjoyable when it wasn’t utterly exhausting and hopefully this won’t be my last time there.

As such, I don’t feel qualified to launch into a full account of PIFF 2010, so I’ll concentrate on the films I caught instead.

Secret Reunion

(2010) Directed by Jang Hun

Click below to view the trailer, which contains English subtitles.

Even if one’s knowledge of film is similar in depth to Boris Johnson’s expertise on lucid discourse, everyone is aware of the concept of ‘national character’ – the cultural zeitgeist of a people that is easy money in cinematic terms. Films portraying the ‘Aussie battler’ champion the loveable struggles of the Australian working class in stereotyped but well-crafted epics such as Gallipoli, however also guarantee bums on seats even with the most formulaic of efforts, such as the more recent Charlie & Boots.

Elsewhere, the British self image of tolerance, restraint and humility has given rise to another genre of guaranteed money-spinners, typically infested with Hugh Grant’s bumbling, self-effacing celebration of failure in the face of eventual triumph. Whether or not anyone in either country actually identifies closely with these social ciphers, they clearly appeal to the collective national psyche.

In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood: the deep and unbreakable bond forged between two men (who may or may not be actual brothers) by blood, sweat, and above all, tears. The human ties that bind define one’s entire outlook in Korean society, with friendship an optional extra. Yet Koreans are powerfully sentimental, and no true brotherhood can last without genuine love.

The last decade alone has produced a glut of films mining the genre all the way to the Earth’s core safe in the knowledge that it will sell like cheap reality tv aspirations. Stand-outs include Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both sides of Korea’s demilitarized zone find friendship easy once duty and politics are pushed aside, and Shiri, a 2000 drama-thriller produced during the time former Korean president Kim Dae-jung actively pursued his Sunshine Policy with the North. In this film, a group of North Korean sleeper agents are pursued by South Korean special agents as they attempt to set off a series of explosives around Seoul so as to weaken the ‘puppet’ American stronghold for reunification DPRK-style.

“In Korea’s highly familial and patriarchal culture, no film touches the hearts of the locals quite like the concept of brotherhood”

2010’s Secret Reunion sits somewhere between the two in terms of plot, dealing as it does with North Koreans infiltrating the South and men of both countries forming a close bond when the seemingly-impenetrable clash of two incompatible ideologies are put aside. In the film, Shadow, a North Korean assassin has been dispatched to the South to obliterate a defected countryman, however Jiwon, his young partner and protege, a product of the North Korean military elite, is not so cold-blooded, needing reasoning deeper than simple political revenge to justify death. When Hangyu, a local National Intelligence agent fails to capture them after a bloody massacre in a residential area, he is forced into civilian life. Six years later however, he inadvertently runs into Jiwon and realizes he once again has a chance to bag the elusive assassin – still somewhere at large in South Korea. As he comes to know his new acquaintance, Hangyu finds a man of depth and compassion, and so turning him in becomes ever more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, PIFF hails this latest Korean effort as a sea change in local cinema. I however found it highly derivative,  a local version of a typical Odd Couple outing, with a very standard and formulaic Hollywood happy ending little different from that one would expect from Midnight Run or 48 Hours. However, the film’s unoriginality and cornball moments are offset to a fair degree by some excellent direction from Jang Hun alongside a very competent cast. Jeon Guk-hwan plays the North Korean assassin Shadow with merciless revolutionary zeal. Jeon is more familiar to locals for his stage work, and the elder statesman’s theatrical experience is on full display here – there is absolutely nothing pantomime in his villain and he really comes across as a credible threat. Song Kang-ho is one of Korea’s biggest film stars and indeed my personal favourite. There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character he inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages, with the highly-talented Kang able to elevate even the most pedestrian of scripts. Equally capable is Kang Dong-won as Jiwon, the inwardly-anguished North Korean soldier. Where Song is all wonderful bluster, Kang is a study in tightly-controlled conflict and unsurprisingly, the foundations for the odd-couple pairing.

With this new chance to re-explore the brotherhood leitmotif as though it were for the very first time in cinema, writers Kim Ju-ho and Jang Min-seok go to great pains to build up this seemingly incompatible relationship, and of course, they’re onto a winner. Secret Reunion delivers the typical mix of two-hander conflict and humour we would expect from such a venture and away from the occasional ventures into Saccharine Alley, succeeds. Punctuated moments of high drama are the really memorable moments however, and the first venture into graphic violence is a surprise to the viewer. It’s even more effective when one learns that the script derives from a true story, with a Shadow-like killer penetrating the border and engaging in urban executions for the glorious Democratic Republic. In a way, it’s a shame that the producers felt they had to dumb down reality to the level of a tired buddy film, taking much of the wind out of history’s sails.

“There is nothing especially groundbreaking about the character [Song Kang-ho] inhabits, but it’s somewhat akin to having Tom Baker read the Yellow Pages”

Jang Hun nonetheless can be praised for being capable of bringing both elements to the screen with equal directorial affinity, clearly understanding the pacing required to bring out both comedy and thriller. The multitalented relative newcomer will hopefully attach himself to genuine innovation in the future and give himself a chance to show what he’s really capable of.

Those new to Korean cinema will be blissfully unaware of Secret Reunion’s recycled nature. Even Song Kang-ho must surely be feeling the déjà-vu, starring as he did in the similarly-themed JSA. For the most part though, it’s a well-produced adventure put together by a skilled production team. If only I hadn’t seen it all before.

Director Zhang Yimou's hand-print in PIFF Square. Yimou's new film, 'Under The Hawthorn Tree', headlined this year's festival.

Voice Over (International Premiere)

(2010) Directed by Svetoslav Todorov Ovtcharov

(Couldn’t find a trailer, I’m afraid)

Kasiel Noah Asher co-stars in the Soviet-Era absurdist drama, 'Voice Over'.

Official program description: The story of a persecuted man who loses his son. Anton Krustev is a famous cinematographer. He makes a film about his own life. But those who now direct the film are the very same people who once persecuted him.

A while ago, I reviewed the Albanian feature film Slogans, which demonstrated the way in which that society, now free of the rigidly-controlled Soviet-style paranoia that once powered it 30 years ago, was finally able to laugh at the insanity of its past. Voice Over is a new Bulgarian entry in very much the same vein, though whereas Slogans showed the way in which people had become more concerned with parroting revolutionary Communist slogans than actually understanding and implementing the ideology behind them, Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies. The film uses black humour to similar effect and similar in theme, the human tragedy of a wasted generation is just as poignant.

As with Secret Reunion, Voice Over is a true story, and to make matters even more intertextual with lead character Anton Krustev attempting to make a film of his own life – of a time in the late 1970s when he became separated from his wife and son by the Iron Curtain, they having fled to West Germany ostensibly for health reasons, but equally because they know which way the wind is blowing. This flashback is the film’s principal tale, and the way in which the State Security Services kept Krustev and his German-born wife under surveillance convinced that one or both were traitors attempting to defect to the decadent West. Innocent phone calls and mail are re-interpreted by the authorities as subversive while the wife herself, entreating Krustev to join her in Berlin, is seen as a malign influence trying to undermine one of Bulgaria’s then-most celebrated directors of photography. Krustev, meanwhile, must deal with the separation and loss of his family all the while succumbing to the influence of national ideologies: he is a patriot torn between personal feelings and national sentiment. If there is a happy ending, it can only be found by future generations free of the irrational forces pinning these unfortunates to the sacrificial altars of their country’s Communist past.

Slogans would also demonstrate how, in times of a Cultural Revolution, the family unit and love itself could be destroyed by the demands of the state, though Voice Over, with genuine humour, suggests that those on the ‘right’ side could be exempt from such disruption. Great rewards are promised to those in the service of their country, and if the misguided are talented, they are not beyond redemption with a certain amount of encouragement.

Voice Over focuses more on the absurd Chinese Whispers-fuelled paranoia inevitably rife in a society kept under close scrutiny by its rulers, more terrified by imagined threats than real enemies”

Writer/director Ovtcharov goes right to the heart of the madness of Soviet paranoia in Voice Over, with even those not well-versed in Eastern European culture or history having no trouble whatsoever in understanding the message being delivered. His story is filled with realistically-drawn characters struggling to cast their voices into an arena interested only in the party line. Chief among them is Ivan Barnev as beleaguered film maker Anton Krustev, who conveys the ever-evolving emotions of love, loneliness, anger and hatred across a rapidly-stretching long-distance relationship with believability. Knowing as we do that the film deals with a dark chapter of Bulgarian history bookended by hopelessness, it is the journey, not the ending that really resonates. However, as much as Voice Over is a story of tragedy and a warning from the past about the dangers of extremism, it is not ultimately about hopelessness, but rather the struggle against insurmountable odds.

Where the viewer may struggle with it however is the slightly-protracted final edit. Perhaps reveling a little too much in the unfolding story, Ovtcharov neglects the pacing of the narrative as well as providing the film with several possible endings that fail to signal the finale. The overall effect renders dry what should be more emotionally-wrenching than it actually is: impatience in a viewer is never a good sign.

Those who can stomach the slower pacing however will be rewarded by Voice Over’s aims and be privy to the very human struggle for normality in extremism’s shadow. The last decade shows that with the parting of Iron Curtain, many Eastern Europeans have interesting stories to tell that they now do in film, finally gaining a voice of freedom away from state-sponsored cinema.

Street entertainment takes the festivities outside of the theatres.

Honey

(2010) Directed by Semih Kaplanoglu

Click to watch the trailer below:

Official program description: Yusuf’s father is a beekeeper whose father hangs his beehives at the top of tall trees. One day, his father travels to a faraway forest on a risky mission, and later Yusuf must enter the forest alone in search of him.

Writer/director Semih Kaplanoglu delivers the third and final entry in the ‘Yusuf’ trilogy, this time focusing on the principal character’s childhood. Admittedly, I was entirely unaware until afterward that I’d just seen the final installment, though since they are told in reverse chronological order, one can enter Yusuf’s world through Honey knowing even less. Quick research revealed that the minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Indeed, I was reminded very much of the equally simple but beautiful Korean epic Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left For The East? of a decade earlier. In both instances, the deep, impenetrable and imposing natural world is deliberately silent and overpowering so as to show the true place of nature in the human narrative.

Nothing could be more suited to the character of Yusuf, the deeply sensitive young boy who is himself so chronically-shy that speech for him is rare. Deep within the Turkish forests, he is heard to speak only with two characters throughout: his father, whom he idolizes, and even then can only communicate in whispers, and his schoolteacher, with whom he is desperate to impress with his reading comprehension skills. Yet in silence, he is fascinated by the world around him while at the same time almost too afraid to touch it. That he will grow into a poet (as seen in the two prequels) is in no way hard to believe.

“The minimalistic Kaplanoglu style involving long, silent sequences and locked-off cameras is very much his trademark, and certainly the antithesis of mainstream cinema.”

Obviously, much of the success of Honey therefore hangs on the child actor selected to play the lead role, but in Bora Atlas, Kaplanoglu has struck gold. Whether or not the young star intrinsically understood what was being asked of him, he imbues Yusuf with wonderful naivete and innocence enshrouded by his fear and awe of the world so well that one can’t imagine anyone else playing the part better. In the absence of dialogue for the most part, Atlas must convey his character entirely through his facial expressions and body language, which he does with the conviction of a young boy who very probably didn’t really know what was going on and for Yusuf, this is in character.

It’s easy to criticise the so-called ADHD generation for having the attention span of a bee and therefore unlikely to find Honey ideal viewing. However, given the director’s Philip Glass-like approach to film-making and the paucity of dialogue, the film is a challenge to even fans of art house cinema at 103 minutes in length. While the point is to really capture the unshakeable silence of Yusuf’s world, it could easily lose at least 20 minutes and still deliver the same message without feeling at all rushed. Yet I also feel compelled somewhere down the line to watch predecessors Milk and Egg to see if this is a shortcoming of the Kaplanglu approach or whether this time around, those self-same elements don’t hold together. It is nonetheless the mark of a confident director not compelled to hide a multitude of sins through post-production.

Ultimately, Honey is a fine piece of cinema that just falls short of greatness perhaps for being too one-note in its approach. I still find plenty in it to recommend however and its refreshing simplicity is the perfect antidote to formulaic claptrap.

The weekend crowd gathers.

Coming Up Next

It’s Iceland, 1973, and the inhabitants of a small, sleepy island find their lives disrupted by the very ground beneath their feet. The true story of Eldfell captured on camera for all to see when World On Film returns.


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:


When Reason Sleeps

You are reading World On Film, the blog that each week explores the world through cinema. Before I get started on this week’s entry, I thought I’d take a moment to mention a couple of other films I’ve enjoyed this week. First up, Christopher Nolan’s new action thriller, Inception. It unfortunately stars Leonardo di Caprio, but don’t let that put you off Nolan’s take on the power of suggestion and an entertaining rollercoaster ride through the world of dreams. To the sci-fi fan, it explores concepts that are nothing new: controlling people’s minds by implanting ideas, questioning whether life is an elaborate dream or we are yet to wake up from what we perceive is reality, but fans of Nolan’s work shouldn’t be disappointed by the execution, with solid performances all round. If like me you’re into sci-fi, check out Moon, a 2009 low-budget space mystery that combines elements of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to create a truly gut-wrenching and thought-provoking tale, elements of which may come true in the not-too-distant future. After being less than impressed by his performance as Zaphod Beeblebrox in 2005 remake of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, I didn’t think Sam Rockwell had it in him to headline a film, but he does and it’s worth checking out.

Sam Rockwell in 2009's 'Moon' - worth a look.

All of which is not really within this blog’s remit, so moving closer to home now, as it were, if a film dealing with events leading up to the Bangladesh civil war appeals, The Clay Bird does just that. I’ll be covering it in this very blog when World On Film reaches Bangladesh, which I expect will be…er…I’ll get back to you on that. Right now though, we’re off to Algeria for the excellent 2002 drama, Rachida. Last week, I posted the trailer. If you missed it, you can watch it right here (I can’t get the embed code to work properly for some reason).

Rachida

Written and directed by Yasmina Bachir.

“It’s post-traumatic psychosis. The whole country suffers from it. Don’t you think I’m afraid?”

Part of World On Film‘s raison d’etre, so to speak, is to explore the world through a medium I enjoy and it’s great when a film inspires me to learn more about its country of origin, shining a light into the many gaps in my global awareness.  Prior to watching Rachida, I knew very little about Algeria other than the fact it was a former French colony and one long-suffering from civil conflict. The latter point is something of an understatement, for Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches. If only to better appreciate the story, I quickly found myself googling this dark and recent chapter in the country’s history. Although still ensuing in some parts of Algeria today, the war principally ran between 1991 and 2002 and was sparked by the rising popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front party (FIS). Fearing they would be overthrown, the incumbent National Liberation Front cancelled the nation’s forthcoming elections and declared the opposing party illegal. The country came under military rule and in response to the banning and arrest of many FIS party members, Islamist guerrillas took up arms and engaged in a prolonged battle with the government and all who supported it. Forming into several groups, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) rampaged through the towns, initially targeting only the authorities, but many soon turned their attention to the civilian population. Over a span of 11 years, upwards of 200 000 lives were lost. It has been alleged that some of the killings were conducted by government agencies, who then publicly blamed the Islamists for the deaths.

Moments of transition: Rachida is drawn into the conflict, never to be the same again.

Ibtissem Djouadi as the title character gives a strong lead performance.

 

A day in the life: citizens face death at any moment.

This then forms the backdrop of the film, set somewhere within that time frame. Rachida is a young female school teacher in Algiers, for whom life is good: she has a stable and fulfilling job, a happy home life and a steady boyfriend. The peace is shattered one day when she is confronted and subsequently shot by a former pupil, now a member of a GIA splinter group intent on delivering a very explosive message to the government. Sent into a country town with her family in order to recover from her ordeal, Rachida finds that while physical wounds may heal quickly, psychological wounds are ever-lasting. And with the town held captive by continual and random guerrilla attacks, any chance of a true recovery is dashed.

“Rachida examines the effects of the Algerian Civil War on the lives of its citizens and the impact the ongoing terrorism had on both their lives and psyches”

I do think this is the kind of film for which you need a basic historical background in order to truly appreciate the magnitude of the conflict, yet it’s important to note that Rachida’s primary themes are not the political underpinnings of the war, and the film assumes the viewer already knows the details. It is essentially a study in the effects of terrorism, both the life-changing impact of a single incident of terror, and life under the ongoing presence of fear and death. The town becomes Algeria in miniature, with families losing loved ones, abductions and the constant pall of uncertainty over whether ‘they’, as the characters frequently describe the militants, are coming. ‘They’ the oppressors, rather than ‘they’ the religious fundamentalists or political insurgents, with the dialogue often asking of the viewer the root cause of the growing madness.

“Where was all this hate buried? This cruelty, this barbarity? These hearts deserted by all humanity.”

A rare moment of peace amidst the chaos.

However, it doesn't last long.

The scarring effects of terrorism, never to be undone.

… … … … … … … … … … … … … For the most part, however, the focus is on the impact of terror itself, with Rachida herself an allegory for the national character – an ordinary person trying to live an ordinary life, but being beaten down by fear. However, unlike many of the townspeople for whom fear has cowed into silence, Rachida’s anger gives her a strength even she isn’t aware of: an anger to ask the questions others feel there is little point in debating. In every group, there is always one person who stands up to the madness, not borne of heroics, but because they cannot do otherwise – it’s simply who they are. Ultimately, the film offers a ray of hope in the encroaching darkness that the human spirit is not always crushed.

“In every group, there is always one person who stands up to the madness, not borne of heroics, but because they cannot do otherwise – it’s simply who they are.

As the first Algerian film I have seen, I found Rachida to be a very strong offering indeed, generally well-structured and well-paced, with a cast of actors whose performances at no time failed to convince. Ibtissem Djouadi, as the title character, is excellently cast and capable of a great range of emotion – her eyes a window into her alter-ego’s troubled soul. There were times when I felt the narrative wasn’t sure who its subject was: the film often spends time being a character study on its lead, which results in a very effective personal drama depicting the effects of war on the human psyche, but at other times seems to veer off on tangents with the lives of unconnected secondary characters, attempting to be a sort of ‘ensemble narrative’ – a village under siege trying to survive. Both approaches are equally valid and worth exploring, but I felt they were not properly integrated. It suggested the producers felt that their initial approach wasn’t strong enough to sustain a feature-length effort and the scope needed to be widened.

However, this does not mar the principal aims of the film’s discourse and I have no difficulty whatsoever in recommending Rachida. As an insight into the Algerian conflict, it is very human, as a drama, it is very compelling, and as a film, it is quite effectively done.

*******

Next on World On Film: Madness of a different kind. A self-confessed idiot drifts aimlessly through life until he meets the girl of his dreams, for whom he will stop at nothing to obtain. But if this is a Catalonian film, what does it have to do with the principality of Andorra? Find out when I review Amor Idiota. An unsubtitled trailer can be viewed below. Be advised: adult content.