We invite you to read an interview with Jonathan Auf Der Heide, the director of „Van Diemen’s Land” – a tragic Alexander Pearce odyssey through wild territories of today’s Tasmania. The movie is currently shown at Sitges Film Festival.
First of all could you in few words present yourself as a filmmaker? I also know you’re an actor?
The films I have an interest in making have a strong production design element as I like to visit other worlds and escape for two hours. But in saying that, these worlds can also give us insight into the one we live in today. Ithink that’s important as a filmmaker. I’ve been an actor for the past ten years working mostly in theatre and television. It’s given me great insight of what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera and how to best communicate to an actor.
Could you tell us few words about your movie fascinations?
I like to escape into a story. I love watching most films.. whether it’s drama, arthouse, thriller, horror.. it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been obsessed with films since I was very young. I grew up in a neighborhood where I lived in fear of being bashed by thugs if I left the house alone, so I chose to escape into movies and I’d say I watched about 15 a week for 6 years. That was the beginning and since then I’ve been hooked.
In Poland we don’t know much about Alexander Pearce. Is his story popular in Australia?
No. It’s not Australia’s proudest moment. Modern Australia was first settled in the late 18th century and so we’re a very young country with a few skeletons in the closet yet to be cleaned out. When Alexander Pearce was hanged the colony wanted to sweep the story under the carpet the best it could.
Subsequently the true story of Alexander Pearce became a myth that through 150 years of hearsay turned him into the “convict cannibal that dined on human flesh of his victims and made them into pies which he sold on the streets of Hobart Town”. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that we as a nation started to look back at our convict heritage at great depth. So until then Pearce was branded a monster and his story wasn’t a very well documented part of our history. So there’s no surprise that you hadn’t heard of it. Many Australian’s haven’t either. Most people have heard of the plane crash in the Andes or the Donner party in the states but not of Pearce, which is amazing considering it’s such a great story. His journey is a fantastic example of human endurance and survival. The wilderness they had to travel through is some of the most rugged terrain in the world. It’s a sort of real life ‘Lord of the flies’ or ‘Deliverance’ story so I knew that it would be a great subject for a film.
The trailer suggests that VDL might look like the movies of such directors as John Hillcoat and Terrence Malick. How would you refer to such comparisions?
I studied much of Malick’s work in preparation for making this film. I wanted to look beyond the obvious horror of the Pearce story and study the humanity behind the events. Van Diemen’s Land is an exploration of what it is to be human under extreme hardship through the eyes of Alexander Pearce. I wanted it to be a very contemplative and brooding film that looked at the brutality of man and the beauty of the wilderness around him. Terrence Malick’s films have similar themes so I looked at them very closely. Along with Werner Herzog of course who often delves into the world of man versus nature and man versus his own nature. I also found Peter Weir & Andrei Tarkovsky’s films of great influence as they manage to give nature the eerie character that I was looking for. John Hillcoat’s ‘The Proposition’ was a landmark Australian film for me because it proved that Aussie colonial stories told well can be as cool as any American western.
How do you try to present Alexander Pearce? As some kind of man-eating monster or a man who would do anything in order to survive?
As an every day man who through extraordinary events did what he had to do to stay alive. I think it’s a more interesting story to tell rather than simply labelling him a sociopath or psychopath. The audience therefore has to relate to him in some way rather than distance themselves from someone who is obviously mentally deranged. Van Diemen’s Land follows Pearce’s descent into the heart of darkness and also into his own visions of hell. In our version of his story he looks deeply into his own nature to discover that he has an instinct to kill in order to survive.
Do you know the movie called „The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce” by Michael James Rowland? Could you compare VDL and Rowland film?
“The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce” is a wonderful 60 minute TV docu-drama but it doesn’t have the time to look into the humanity of the story that we have the luxury of exploring (due to our longer running time). VDL focuses purely on the escape alone and does not cover the back story or the trial of Pearce. I wanted to keep the film contained because I wanted to look deeply into the relationship between these European convicts and the alien landscape around them. For me it’s a story of man and nature and the lengths we will go to in order to survive. As soon as you focus on the brutality of the penal settlement or the trial it becomes too easy to place a moral judgement. “Last confession” is quite different to ours because it shows much of the ‘before & after’ while VDL stays in the jungle from start to finish. Consequently Rowland’s docu-drama seems to imply that if you treat people like dogs then of course they will behave like animals. While I wanted to make VDL much more of personal journey from Pearce and not suggest that he is a product of a brutal penal settlement. I didn’t want the debate of ‘Nature vs Nurture’ presented as such a clear-cut case, I want the audience to discuss it amongst themselves. So in a way they work well together because they both explore different elements of the story.
The tagline… „Hunger is a strange silence”… sounds poetic, but also quite enigmatic. Is there anything particular you’d like to say through these words?
It’s a combination of the contemplative and the visceral nature of the journey. As an audience you’re constantly reminded of the physical journey through seeing these characters experience such traumatic weather conditions… But we also wanted to remind you of the overwhelming reality of what it’s like to be hungry. It’s all consuming and it’s all that you can think about when your stomach is burning from hunger. Pearce said in his confession “no man could tell what he’d do when driven by hunger” and that has always stayed with me.
What do you think about such ‚cannibalistic’ movies as ‚Alive’ or ‚Ravenous’?
I didn’t want to make a “cannibal film”. The cannibalism aspect is secondary to the story of human survival in VDL. Glorifying the blood and gore didn’t interest me as I felt that had been done many times before. Of course the film is confronting and shocking in moments but it’s always going to be when you have cannibalism in the story.
Do you have any ideas for another feature movie?
Oscar Redding and I are working on a script at the moment. A western about the Australian bushranger Ben Hall who committed hundreds of robberies without shooting anyone… But when he was captured he was shot 30 times in the back by police. Cool story.
Thank you Jonathan and good luck with „Van Diemen’s Land.