I first heard the story of escaped convict Alexander Pearce when I was a teenager on the tour boat to Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. I’d been working with a theatre company in Strahan as an actor and it was my first time on the West Coast of Tasmania. I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Hobart but I’d never ventured further than a few trips to Launceston and out to Mt. Field for a school trip. I was immediately taken with the place. I remember standing at the front of the boat as it gently cruised down the Gordon River and what struck me the most were the impenetrable walls of forest on either side of the river. The water was like glass that reflected these walls down to hell itself – considering I’d just been told that the mouth of the Macquarie Harbour was named “Hell’s Gates” it’s not surprising I thought such a thing! I imagined what it would have been like for the English, Irish and Scottish convicts who grew up in the rolling green fields of their homelands to see such a thing, to be thrust upon a forbidding new world that had never been cultivated by the human hand and had never been tamed. I envisaged the fear that the unknown would have brought them. A land that’s so beautiful yet foreboding and unfamiliar. For those eight convicts to attempt an escape through such inhospitable country was madness. I immediately thought that beyond the horrific details of what happened to these men – a tale of progressive cannibalism – there’s a fascinating story of human survival where the battle between man and nature ends in tragedy.


Van Dieman’s Land: trekking down river (credit: Kitty Green)


The Tasmanian rainforest has a Gothic darkness to it that stems from the alienation and fear experienced by settlers and convicts in the early days of European settlement. What particularly intrigued me about the story of Pearce was this relationship between the convicts and the landscape – how this fear of the Gothic within the Tasmanian forest drove these men to violence. With the film (Van Diemen’s Land, 2009), I wanted to question our nationhood and cultural identity by examining one of the darker moments of our history and our first reactions to the landscape. The use of the Irish language was a perfect device to immediately alienate modern Australian audiences from their own landscape and history by reminding them that English wasn’t the first language spoken by many of our ancestors who arrived here. 

So, considering the role that the Tasmanian landscape had to play in the film, it was essential that we shoot the film there. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints the majority of the film was shot in Victoria, which was infinitely cheaper. We were working on a small budget of $260,000, which doesn’t go far on a location shoot. The Otways in southwestern Victoria was used as a substitute “setting” for the characters’ journey through the forest and for all the night scenes. We spent ten days shooting in Tasmania where we captured all of the scenes that had any sense of landscape… or water. There was also a drought in Victoria at the time and this was the deciding factor in sticking to our guns and shooting in Tasmania. And I’m so glad we did. Even though we were only in Tasmania for a quarter of the shoot I’d say about 40% of what you see on screen is what we shot in those ten days. 


Van Diemen’s Land: the Wilderness (credit: Ellery Ryan)


But in saying all that, I feel that I managed to fit in the Victorian footage really well. There’s only one scene that stands out for me as a location that is obviously not Tasmanian, and I justify that by it being more of a dream sequence. When Pearce finds a bloody axe in a tree it’s in a forest of wind-swept Manna Gums that give the scene a nice feeling of distortion and confusion. I haven’t seen anything similar in the western parts of Tasmania except for maybe as you approach Derwent Bridge and you squint your eyes and tilt your head a bit. I tell myself that I wanted to get inside Pearce’s starving and confused brain, so it’s a decision made purely for storytelling purposes. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

About The Author

Jonathan auf der Heide won the Best Emerging Filmmaker award at the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival, and his debut feature Van Diemen’s Land was released the following year. He’s currently directing his segment of the compendium feature adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning and co-writing his next feature, This Dark Wood (also set in Tasmania) with Tom Holloway – which has received second draft funding from Screen Tasmania.

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