Van Diemen’s Land: the heart of darkness

Oscar Redding in Van Diemens LandThe darker corners of Australia’s short history have typically been left just there, in the dark. Paul Hayes spoke with Jonathan Auf Der Heide, the director who’s bringing a missing chapter to life.

To most Australians, the mention of colonial Australia will conjure images of Burke and Wills discovering the breadth of the land, or Ned Kelly heroically railing against a tyrannical English rule.

What they will not think of however, are stories of an often wretched existence in a totally unfamiliar landscape, or forced backbreaking labour brought about because of the theft of a few pairs of shoes.

And the average Australian will certainly not think of stories of brutal cannibalism when remembering their nation’s history.

It is exactly these darker tales of Australia’s past that first time director Jonathan auf der Heide hopes to bring to the fore with his film Van Diemen’s Land.

The film tells the true story of Irish convict Alexander Pearce, who in 1822 escaped along with seven other convicts from Tasmania’s notorious Sarah Island penal colony. With little food and no idea how to survive in some of the most unforgiving surroundings in the world, the men soon turned to killing and eating each other.

Pearce was the sole survivor.

This is one story of Australia’s history that is generally not taught in schools, and certainly not shown on screen… at least not until very recently, with Dying Breed using it as inspiration for its cannibal town, and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce recreating it for television earlier this year.

“I was interested in the story because I had always felt that there was a chapter missing in Australian history, cinematically,” said auf der Heide.

“This was quite an ugly story for the colony and was swept under the carpet for quite a while.”

Colonial Australia was not as romantic or courageous a place as many seem to believe.

“Our country was born from Europeans coming over here and doing it hard in a landscape that they didn’t understand,” auf der Heide said.

“Not all of it was dark and brutal, but some if it was and I think it is a very interesting chapter in our history.

“I still tell people today the premise of the story and they just can’t believe it took place in Australia and they had not heard a single thing about it.”


Co-written by auf der Heide and actor Oscar Redding, Van Diemen’s Land came from a 20-minute short about Pearce, Hell’s Gates, the pair made at the Victorian College of the Arts.

The short proved especially successful and laid the platform for the pair to secure funding for the feature.

“The plan with the short film was always to use that as a selling tool to secure funding,” auf der Heide said.

“It is a lot easier to convince people that the product that you are selling is going to be good if you have a 20-minute excerpt with the same cast and crew attached.”

The success of Hell’s Gates meant that Van Diemen’s Land was ultimately able to be financed independently, making the creative process one of far more control for the filmmakers.

It is a funding scheme that auf der Heide thinks is to be copied by other Australian hopefuls.

“I think the way we got the film off the ground is an exciting format for other filmmakers to follow,” he said.

“You have complete control right until the very end.

“We made a film that does have very brutal moments, and we didn’t have anyone second guessing that.”

Shooting much of the film on location in Tasmania gave auf der Heide and the crew a real sense what it was these eight desperate men were faced with, and what drove them to such horrific acts.

“That was definitely the highlight of the shoot,” auf der Heide said.

“We saw Sarah Island where these guys were kept, and then we went down the Gordon River into the forest and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but it is such an inhospitable and unforgiving place.

“You can’t live there because it is barren of wildlife and is so wet and cold. I love that mix of beauty and the brutal.”

It is exactly that mix that many Colonial Australians would have been confronted with, and what gave auf der Heide a sense of what made Australia, and indeed Australians, who they are.

“What fascinated me about the story and being able to tell it is that there has to be ramifications in who we are today as Australians from this first reaction to our landscape,” he said.

“In the first years of settlement it was really hard for people to survive, and how they overcame that struggle must have strengthened them in character.

“It is the birth of our culture.”

Van Diemen’s Land will be released by Madman Cinema on September 24, and has already secured a UK release in 2010 through High Fliers Distribution. ■


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