Here’s something I believe fiercely: there is no monopoly on suffering. Show me how your forefathers struggled under the yoke of cruel brutality, and I’ll show you how mine struggled more. But perhaps more importantly, whilst the stuff my ancestors did to yours appalls me, the stuff my ancestors did to each other leaves me bereft and numb with pain. Take Australia, for instance. Not today’s incarnation of plucky, inventive, wittily self-confident Australia, but the old one of misery, squalor, sadism and aching loneliness. We rightly gasp at the horror of the Slave Ships that packed shocked, chained Africans in like so much ballast for a six week sailing across the Atlantic, but we’ve forgotten that the first convict Australians traveled in the same slavers’ lethal boats, with the same leg-irons and zero hygiene and merciless overlords, for voyages four or five times longer. If you’ve never read Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore… well, I’m telling you you should.
This came home to me again watching the vivid, disturbing Aussie movie, Van Diemen’s Land by first-time helmer Jonathan auf der Heide. It’s the bloody tale of Irish convict Alexander Pearce and his blundering escape from the Sarah Island Penal Colony in Tasmania in 1822. He’s also accompanied by seven other convicts, each of differing factions and loyalties and generations and heritages, the differences of which come promptly into play once they are isolated in the wilderness. That they are all city folk also means that not one of them is equipped in the slightest for rigors of the Tasmanian outback, and these really ordinary men from a far-flung northern archipelago find themselves completely out of their depth. Thus begins their descent into hell.
Without giving too much away – the story is legendary in Oz – the convicts turn to cannibalism to survive. And we’re used to this kind of subject matter in the movies too – I caught the entertaining Ravenous on tv again the other day for example. But to cope with it we typically turn the subject matter into burlesque, or campy Hannibal Lector-esque horror. We don’t face it head on, as this film does, from a psychological perspective. I thought it was excellent in its understated brilliance: This could be you, it says. These are all our stories.
Tasmania itself is the film’s nemesis character. Impenetrable walls of foliage, mountain chains like jagged knives, inclement weather, Tasmania is terrifying and majestic, breath-taking and capricious, lovely and treacherous. And compelling. In spite of everything, Van Diemen’s Land really makes you want to visit.