VAN DIEMEN'S LAND, a film by JONATHAN AUF DER HEIDE, 2009 (Madman DVD)

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VAN DIEMEN'S LAND, a film by JONATHAN AUF DER HEIDE, 2009 (Madman DVD)

In the first volume of his projected trilogy about the history of his homeland -- Australians: Origins to Eureka, published 2009 -- the writer Thomas Keneally writes of the first Irish convicts transported to what became Sydney.

They believed that if they could just escape and head north they would get to China and be able to start a new life. Of course they took one look at the arid landscape over the ridge and gave up hope.

From this historic distance their naivety seems laughable, but Keneally notes that these were the poorest of the poor, mostly rural people or illiterate townsfolk denied an education by the English, and so their notion of geography was somewhat limited.

When the convict Alexander Pearce and six others -- variously English, Scottish and Irish --escaped from their captors in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in 1822 they had little thought of making it to China: they simply figured if they headed east they would get to the coast and then could steal a boat and head home. Little did they know . . .

This savage and frequently silent film recounts their flight into the unforgiving bush of Tasmania's mountains (not dissimilar to New Zealand bush) and the men's subsequent decline into factionalism and suspicion, murder and cannablism. It is like Black Robe without the belly laughs. (If you've seen Black Robe you'll know that's a joke.)

Director Auf Der Heide looks at the landscape with the same eye as Herzog did in Aguirre, Wrath of God -- that it is impenetrably dense and dark, a malevolent force in itself, forbidding and brutal. It eats people -- when they aren't eating each other.

This is based on a true story (the written coda at the end about the subsequent life of the sole survivor Pearce is chilling) and doesn't speak well of the human condition or the desperation men will resort to when confronted with certain death.

Out there in that indifferent world there is no God -- other than the one who possesses the axe to go about his bloody business. 

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