Sync: One-way journey to Van Dieman’s Land

 185 years after his execution, Alexander Pearce is more popular than ever, with the release of another film about Tasmania’s infamous convict . Annabel Mccully reports.

“[Working title] Hell’s Gates was a reference to Dante’s Inferno (The Divine Comedy), and in writing the script we paralleled Alexander Pearce’s journey through the depths of Van Diemen’s Land to Dante’s own journey through the depths of hell,” explains writer/director Jonathan auf der Heide about the name change of his debut feature, Van Diemen’s Land. “That was our character arc right there, but too many people mistook it for a horror film.”

Van Diemen’s Land [the former name for Tasmania] represents a period of Australian history; it conjures up the notion of the birth of a nation and the blood required for that. It’s a strong reference point,” adds writer/executive producer Oscar Redding, who also plays Pearce.

This is the second film about the infamous historical character, the Irish convict who escaped Tasmania’s Sarah Island and became a cannibal in order to survive. But Michael James Rowland’s The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, says the director, “is a docudrama… the biggest difference is that we don’t have that voice-over narration, and no flashbacks.”

Both films, however, do share a revisionist view of Pearce, who has been considered a ‘monster’ by popular culture. “We approach him as a regular guy who, due to exceptional circumstances, did what he had to do in order to survive. He’s usually portrayed as a sociopath, but we show him as an everyman character. “The audience needs to be able to relate to him, but we didn’t go out of our way to make him a nice guy either. He’s just someone who through his journey finds that darkness in the human spirit that enables him to kill in order to survive,” explains auf der Heide.

The casting of Redding as Pearce might also help audiences connect with the film. “The last thing I wanted was to have people see a poster and think ‘Oh, that’s got the guy from Neighbours in it’,” says the director. Redding adds that a big name is not necessarily a guarantee. “I mean, there are plenty of Tom Cruise films that failed.” As a film student, auf der Heide and producer Maggie Miles created a $15,000, 21- minute version of Hell’s Gates, which won awards -and money- from the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne International Film Festival. “Short films can be a rewarding experience, but no one sees them other than a couple of hundred people at a festival. “That short went into profit, which is pretty rare. It was always my intention to make this feature out of film school, but I didn’t expect it to be as quick as it was. We spent three months writing investment proposals, meeting with people and screening the short to gather the [private] funds.” The film, he says, is a “gothic tale” but they did not go for a period film look. Instead, it Is “quite dark and moody, and there isn’t much dialogue.”

[AFI and ACS winner] Ellerie Ryan joined the team, working with the RED One camera to capture the landscape, an essential element. “It’s beautiful but also quite terrifying. It has a looming presence with a de-saturated look.” The film will have its premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival; Madman Cinema will be in charge of the distribution, although the release date has not been decided yet. In the meantime, the festival circuit is a priority, as the filmmakers plans to submit the film to Cannes, Edinburgh, Venice and Toronto. “I feel like we’re having to rely on festival success to get our film out there, but I believe we have a brilliant film,” admits auf der Heide.


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