Friday, November 25, 2011

Van Dieman's Land

Directed by Jonathan auf der Heide
Written by Jonathan auf der Heide and Oscar Redding
BOFA 2011

"Hunger is a strong silence."

If Jonathan auf der Heide wasn't such an incredibly brilliant film-maker, Van Dieman's Land would be a much easier film to watch. To say that it is confronting is an understatement and I have to admit upfront to leaving the cinema after the fifth killing because I found it too disturbing to watch. Well, I knew it was going to end badly, in any case.

No need to say "spoilers" here when mentioning the killings because the story of Alexander Pearce, Australia's most infamous convict, is well known, if not as explicitly or as factually represented on film before auf der Heide's 2009 feature. Set in 1822 colonial Tasmania on Sarah Island, where the most violent convicts were interned, Van Dieman's Land trails the escape of Pearce and seven other convicts as they attempt to trek cross-country from the west to reach a settlement on the east coast. These are English, Irish and Scottish convicts who don't realise how inhospitable the landscape is until it's too late. They become disoriented and lost, and without the ability to hunt or fish they turn on each other in their desperation to survive.

This film is disturbing because the film-making and storytelling is so powerful, it pulls you into the landscape with the convicts - and that is a bleak place to be. From the opening aerial shots, we feel the brooding, dense, oppressive landscape as character; it is a terrifying natural world. A Gaelic storyteller adds a poetic voiceover at times to the imagery; it is the voice of fate, of tragedy, of despair, a lyrical rumination of what is to come, and it sets up the film with a grim tension that is impossible to escape.

The film is shot almost monochromatically and the gritty washed-out colours add to the intensely bleak feeling. It is the colour before night turns into day, in the netherspace between what is real and what is dreamed, between logic and nightmare. The sense of monotonous desolation is relentless and it creates a profoundly emotional response to the imagery. It is a complete sensory experience; the violence is graphic, the music is at times haunting, and at other times pulsing with a physical intensity that I could feel reverberating through the soles of my feet. It is an uncomfortable intimacy.

The proliferation of CSI-style television with its strong focus on graphic forensic images, bloody close-ups of killings and body parts, and abhorrently new ways of murdering says a lot about our fascination with the dark parts of the psyche. I am fiercely critical of the gratuitousness with which contemporary film and tv approach the subject - and object - of violence. Is Van Dieman's Land violent? Absolutely. Is it necessary to show such violence? Absolutely. It gives us a profound insight into the brutality and desperation of the characters which we could not access in any other way. Character drives story. And this is authentic from-the-guts storytelling driven by character.

Van Dieman's Land is an outstanding Australian film. You might wonder, then, why I left early. Maybe I'm not ready to admit that such darkness exists, that people are capable of such cold-hearted annihilation. All I know is that I was desperate to leave the cinema, and if that all-encompassing, physical desperation gave me even an iota of a glimpse of what Pearce and his fellow convicts felt, then auf der Heide shows his true brilliance in translating story into experience.

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