“If colonialism can be said to have its own origin myths, none is more powerful than the suppression of the threatening ‘other’ – the disavowed animal rival, the cannibal gnawing at the human heart.” (1)
Primarily based on convict Alexander Pearce’s four confessions, Jonathan auf der Heide’s 2009 feature film Van Diemen’s Land is a retelling of the true story of the escape of eight convicts in 1822 from the isolated Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land). Infamously, unable to sustain themselves in the wilderness, the men resort to eating one another until only one convict, Pearce, is left standing. The film’s structure is ultimately binary, split equally between the convicts’ at times intimate and predominantly antagonistic relationships as they desperately head overland towards Hobart Town, and the sublime environment that both psychologically and pictorially consumes them. Although not technically “ecocinema” (2), Van Diemen’s Land invites an ecocritical consideration of both nonhuman and human nature. In the first instance, a great deal of screen time is devoted exclusively to nonhuman nature in the film and its centrality to the narrative is signalled by the long take that opens the film: an extended travelling shot of the Tasmanian bush and the Gordon River which is then interposed at several points in the narrative. In the second instance, the film, as a tale about cannibalism, inevitably foregrounds the eating, desiring body. Moreover, Van Diemen’s Land brings the nonhuman and human into interrelationship by constantly affiliating the two.
The Tasmanian Gothic on Screen
In their work on Tasmanian film, Emily Bullock (3) and Jane Stadler (4) discuss the cinematic representation of the Tasmanian wilderness in terms of the Gothic mode (5). In “Tasmanian Gothic” (6), the environment is ultimately conceived anthropocentrically. On the one hand, the landscape is represented as part and parcel of the convict and colonial past of Tasmania. On the other, the Gothic landscape conceived as, for example, “malevolent” (7) and “unforgiving” (8), as conveying “a sense of menace” (9), reflects a discourse whereby nonhuman nature is defined solely by its relation to the human and the cultural. This human-centred view of nature is clearly encapsulated in a statement by Keryn Stewart and Helen Hopcroft about the Tasmanian Gothic:
Place and spatial concerns resonate through the Tasmanian Gothic sensibility; the landscape is seen as an active element in the gothic narrative, even a quasi-sentient force animated with menace. Tasmania‘s wild landscapes and grimly picturesque ruins, with their links to the violent and bloody convict past of the island, provide fertile ground for gothic imaginings; artists, writers and critics have long used the island as an imaginative site to play out these concerns. (10)
Although nature here appears almost to be granted agency – it is an “active element […] even a quasi-sentient force” – the idea that the landscape is “animated with menace” is clearly a human projection that imagines wild nature as having only one register (“menace”) and which presents it, implicitly, as profoundly different from the domesticated pastoral. It appears, moreover, that the landscape is understood to be inextricably fused with the brutal human past of Tasmania/Van Diemen’s Land through the ruins from the island’s penal history that are found either in wild nature or with this nature as their backdrop.
In “Seeing with Green Eyes: Tasmanian Landscape Cinema and the Ecological Gaze”, Stadler examines Van Diemen’s Land and other Tasmanian films not only in terms of the Gothic mode but considers how these films simultaneously invoke an environmentalist consciousness. In this article, I do not aim to address the possible environmentalist sensibilities of Van Diemen’s Land, however my work is informed by ecophilosophy and by an understanding of the nonhuman as having agency and as distinct from, yet interconnected with the human. Consequently, I hope that my analysis is complementary to Stadler’s argument.
The representation of the Tasmanian wilderness in Van Diemen’s Land reflects colonial discourses surrounding nature which viewed it as empty and as hyper-separated from the colonising Self (11). Yet I propose that a potential affinity is suggested between the all-male characters and the wilderness in which they find themselves. Among other things, through their expulsion from the encultured world they are positioned in relation to the nonhuman – although such an interpretation is problematic as it effectively reinforces the hyper-separation of culture and nature. However, the possibility of their identification with the wilderness is simultaneously undermined by their breaking of the taboo of cannibalism, an act that ironically highlights that they are ultimately too “civilised”. According to this reading, Van Diemen’s Land becomes as much a narrative concerning the brutality of Tasmania’s convict past as it is a parable of humanity’s separation from the natural world of which it is itself a part.
The Wild Other
Van Diemen’s Land reflects those responses that as William Cronon observes were commonplace among Westerners in the presence of wilderness until the eighteenth century – and obviously in the colonial context beyond that time – feelings of bewilderment, at the very least, if not terror (12). Wilderness was the fundamental material realisation of the Other.
Auf der Heide claims, “I wanted the landscape to look like a version of hell” (13). At the same time however he notes that his work is inspired by Terrence Malick’s films The New World (2005) and The Thin Red Line (1998) in which violent acts provide a counterpoint to the beautiful wildernesses in which they take place. Similarly, the wilderness in Van Diemen’s Land remains spectacular and inscrutable despite the horror to which the men are driven. Moreover, the action takes place in a diversity of wild landscapes in weather conditions including everything form snow to bright sunshine. The natural environment as multi-faceted spectacle therefore frequently engages the viewer in a way which is more akin to the touristic consumption of wilderness that Cronon notes had its onset in the nineteenth century than to the horror he argues the wilderness would have evoked prior to this time (14).
The only shots which really suggest the Tasmanian wilderness as “hell” – and which clearly refer to the aesthetic sensibility of Werner Herzog (one of auf der Heide’s key inspirations) – are the travelling long takes of the Gordon River which bookend the film and are interposed throughout the narrative. These shots of an impenetrable, isolated and dark rainforest are those that come closest to evoking the traditional Western concept of wilderness which, as Val Plumwood writes,
was a negative one, delineating a sphere of alterity defined by various nature/culture oppositions, from the Judaic ones which opposed wilderness to the sacred space of the garden, to the Greek and Roman ones which opposed wilderness to rational “civilization”, cives or civic order associated with the beginning of urban life […]. The wilderness is what is left behind by rational civilization and ordered cultivation; it is the supposedly irrational and chaotic sphere represented by the primeval forest, the dangerous shadow place on the other side of the boundary of order, the haunt of “the wild man”, of “barbarians” and beasts… (15)
In Western culture, wilderness is the Other of civilisation. It is the inferiorised opposite of both the ordered, productive pastoral and rationalised urban environments. It is moreover the sphere of the animal.
The escaped convicts are marked as being like nature on at least three levels. Firstly, and most obviously, they themselves have been expelled by civilisation, cast out of the body politic and exiled. Secondly, the convicts’ resort to cannibalism further situates them as the opposite of the civilised Self. As Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin write in their discussion of colonialism, cannibalism is “one of the most potent ‘term[s] within a discourse of othering’ […], the eating of the flesh of one’s own (human) species is the ultimate crime; utterly beyond the pale, it constitutes irrefutable evidence of an unregenerate animal savagery” (16). The convicts in becoming like “animals” and “savages” – the human Other recurrently imagined to be a cannibal within broader colonial discourses (17) – can be read through these colonial discourses as co-relative of the wild nature in which they find themselves. Thirdly, as slave labour and therefore culturally defined by their bodies, the men are again situated discursively on the nature side of the culture/nature binary through the related mind/body binary.
Cinematically the convicts’ association with nature is certainly suggested in the editing and framing of shots and in the use of colour through which auf der Heide manages to effectively absorb the men into the natural environment (18). Many of the scenes open with surprisingly long takes of the “empty” bush in medium or long shot before the men enter the frame. It is particularly in the long shots that the men seem unexpectedly small when they do finally appear. In these instances they are dominated by the vastness of the bush, in particular in shots with gum trees that take up most of the frame and tower over the men. The muted colour of the film further contributes to making the convicts, at times, almost indistinguishable from the native flora around them (19).
Yet even as it appears that the convicts might be aligned with the wilderness, it is clear that wild nature is Other to them because they are, ironically, too “civilised”. The environment in which they find themselves is not only completely alien but is loaded with the colonial version of the traditional European conception of wilderness whereby
wilderness is a place waiting to receive, to be filled, a place with no desire or fully human history other than what Western culture imposes upon it. It is a transparent vessel waiting to be filled with the projects of human labor and cultivation, a site both passive and chaotic, open for the settler effort and improvement that will make it, at last, “productive.” (20)
In contrast to the pastoral mode where nature is encultured, nature in Van Diemen’s Land is represented as the complete absence of culture – at least of culture as envisioned by European imperialism. To the escaped convicts the wilderness is inscrutable, it is radically Other. For these men, bound to European notions of the colonial wilderness, it is implicit that because familiar flora and fauna are absent as is the pastoral environment, nature here is lifeless. Auf der Heide in fact reproduces this discourse when he says:
It’s an ancient rainforest but it doesn’t noticeably change from season to season in appearance and that gives it a lifeless quality. Even though it is beautifully lush and green, it feels dead in a way. In the film I wanted to give it the feel that “life” wasn’t welcome there and that it was a harsh and brutal character. Pearce would then have to, in order to survive, become like the landscape. (21)
The convicts’ belief that the bush is empty is reiterated several times in the film. As they escape, the convicts’ guard is the first to assert, “There’s nothing out there”. Later when Dalton claims that the men can hunt, Pearce sceptically enquires “Hunt what? There’s nothing out there.” Once they have actually run out of food, Dalton in turn angrily declares, “We’ll starve. There’s nothing out there.” Indeed the film contains little audible evidence of wildlife (22) and certainly no visual indication of it. The two animals that are mentioned in the film remain unseen to the viewer: the snake which bites Travers and the creature pursued by Bodenham – although Kennerly casts doubt on the fact that this animal actually exists outside Bodenham’s imagination.
As a result of the film’s limited soundscape and the lack of visual representation of wildlife, the viewer is led to experience the Tasmanian wilderness much as the convicts do, as lifeless. Yet, at the same time, the stunning and evocative cinematography frequently arrests our identification with the men’s plight (and even our horror at their acts) through moments of contemplation and pleasure when the beauty of the landscape dominates the image. Through the film’s cinematography, verdant nature itself undermines the notion that it is “dead”.
Eating and Power
The passage of time is indistinct in Van Diemen’s Land. The structure of the film makes it appear that the period over which the escape takes place, the killing begins, and Pearce remains the final survivor is little more than, at most, a few weeks. Inaccurate though this may be, its effect is to focus the narrative around the power relationships amongst the men rather than to dwell on the question of how one might survive, ill-equipped, in such an environment (23). Indeed this latter issue is barely touched on and is replaced with the repeated assertion that “There’s nothing out there”. The killing therefore appears to be less the consequence of necessity than to be driven by a newfound, and insatiable, appetite for human flesh, an appetite that expresses, above all, power relationships – and this is particularly obvious in the final (achingly slow and exhausting) “showdown” between Greenhill and Pearce. Throughout the film these power relationships are made analogous with the domination and inferiorisation of the nonhuman and its correlatives – such as women.
In her article “Mapping the Cinematic Journey of Alexander Pearce, Cannibal Convict”, Stadler writes:
the convicts had inadequate clothing or shelter and were malnourished and constantly ill with scurvy. Their meager rations consisted of rancid “brine-cured pork or beef, two or three years old,” supplemented with some oatmeal and about 500g of bread laced with ergot, a fungus that causes grain to rot, thereby preventing convicts from hoarding rations for a jailbreak. (24)
The convicts’ limited and poor quality food thus functioned both to contain them and to inscribe the power of the penal system onto the their bodies through malnourishment and disease. Likewise in Van Diemen’s Land we find an interwoven series of power relationships all bound together by the politics of food consumption, and above all by meat eating.
As Huggan and Tiffin as well as Carol Adams argue, carnivory is “ultimately an expression of power over others” (25). Most explicitly, of course, carnivory is an expression of power over the being which is eaten. However, Adams highlights that links can also be found between meat eating and the domination of women, the lower classes, and people of colour, noting that historically when there is a limited meat supply, privileged white man’s alleged need for meat is met first. Moreover, not only has meat eating been associated with wealth, Adams finds that in nineteenth century Darwinian discourses, carnivory was viewed as natural for those who were supposedly higher up on the evolutionary scale. In contrast vegetarianism was aligned with peoples considered less developed (26).
Initially in Van Diemen’s Land, carnivory is conspicuously the domain of representatives of the penal system and the exercising of power through the act of meat eating is perfectly captured right from the outset of the film in a scene which also questions the ethics of eating nonhuman animals by implying a relationship between carnivory and cannibalism. After the long, tracking shot of the dense Tasmanian bush which opens the film there is an abrupt cut to an extreme close-up of a man eating unidentified meat. As he forcefully pushes the food into his mouth, we hear the exaggerated sounds of his mastication. The sight of fluid and fat on the food and the saliva on his lips, as well as the unnaturally loud sound of saliva in his mouth are sickening, leading a viewer who is already aware of the subject matter of the film to wonder if they are already observing someone in flagrante delicto of a cannibalistic act. This suggestion is short-lived however once medium shots of the man – who we now see is an officer – are intercut with images of convicts waiting barefoot, freezing and in obvious pain on the beach outside his tent.
The juxtaposition here of the opening shots of the bush and the sudden cut to the eating officer announces that wilderness and food are the film’s central concerns. More importantly, it is interesting that in a film ostensibly about eating, this is one of the few scenes in which we actually see food being consumed. The abjection experienced in viewing the officer eating and the slippage implied visually between cannibalism and carnivory invite the viewer to question the morality of meat eating by considering possible interrelationships in meaning between the practice of carnivory and the act of cannibalism. The implications of these initial scenes consequently point to the hegemonic discourses involving the othering of both the nonhuman – including the nonhuman environment and nonhuman animals – and inferiorised humans – such as women – expressed through the act of meat eating, that run throughout the film’s narrative.
Initially carnivory indirectly links the mastery of some humans over others. We see this first in the repeated cuts between the men waiting on the beach and the officer finishing his meat meal. In a subsequent scene the convicts eat bread while their guard regales them with the details of a fabulous meal he had the previous night which included mutton and during which he claims, “I was in no need of my good friend the potato” – the carbohydrates of the poor and disenfranchised (27). The structures of domination inherent in the eating of the nonhuman – domination by some humans over nonhuman animals and implicitly also over inferiorised humans – are transformed as the men take up cannibalism. Now the mastery expressed through meat eating as a direct power relationship by some humans over others is symbolically linked with the domination of the nonhuman environment. While all the men appear to be visually “consumed” by nature, it is in fact those men who are murdered and eaten by their colleagues, those men who are reduced to their pure use value, who are explicitly aligned with the environment around them: Dalton’s death is foreshadowed when Pearce finds an axe embedded in a gum tree which appears to ooze blood-red sap; as Bodenham appears to wait to be killed, his young dripping face is associated through an edit with a mossy tree off which the rain drips; and as Mathers attempts to go vegetarian, boiling up plants from the wilderness for food, he is attacked by Greenhill. Domination and the consumption of the (vulnerable) body become explicitly aligned with a wilderness which, as I have already argued, is viewed as inferior and as only having use value.
This relationship between the dominated body and nonhuman nature is prefigured when the men discuss turning back. Kennerly warns: “I witnessed a young chappy take two-hundred lashes once. After the first hundred you could see his spine poking through. So for the next hundred they had to whip his arse. Blood gushing like a tap. Never tried to escape after that.”
In the next scene Brown bathes in the river. As he turns his back to the camera we see the scars from a lashing on his back. Although blood no longer gushes from his wounds, the river flowing around him brings to mind Kennerly’s words.
The reducing of the body to the status of mere meat is exaggerated by the gradual blurring of the boundary between sexuality and cannibalism. While the men have food and are enjoying their liberty, their conversation frequently turns to sex. In their discussions and quips, women and those considered feminised – specifically Travers, Greenhill’s lover – are belittled. In one striking instance Kennerly tells the bawdy and rather grotesque story of a woman who farts while making love. He caps off the tale by asserting of women that “if they didn’t have cunts you’d throw stones at them”. Desire is soon replaced by hunger in the men’s thoughts however. Nonetheless, the two appetites are never entirely separated and there are multiple scenes with both sexual and cannibalistic implications. Shortly after the convicts’ escape, for example, Dalton, after crossing a river naked, slaps his own backside. The sexual reference horribly foreshadows that he will shortly be nothing more than meat to his companions. In another scene Greenhill, Travers and Pearce, who appear to be involved in a “threesome” involving conflicting carnal desires, attempt to sleep. As Greenhill caresses his lover Travers’ abdomen, a gesture that suggests both hunger and sexual desire, Pearce, who will eventually eat both of them, watches. In another film, the intimate proximity of the three men might suggest that Pearce’s gaze is either voyeuristic or jealous. As it is, Pearce is as likely as not looking on in hunger. Pearce’s danger as sexual/cannibalistic predator is again suggested later when Travers says to Greenhill of Pearce, “I don’t like the way that he looks at me”.
Motifs of the mastery of nature run through Van Diemen’s Land. These structures of domination of the human and the nonhuman found their real life epitome and origin in the imperial centre of which the “malevolent” and “unforgiving” colonial wilderness can be read as merely a reflection. As Stadler rightly observes: “The film challenges audiences to consider what a person might do if after being sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude for stealing shoes, they were then underfed, isolated and brutally lashed, before fleeing into a cold, wet, and densely wooded forest” (28).
Indeed, while on the one hand horrifying the viewer, the film does elicit pity for these men and abhorrence at the disproportionate punishment meted out for their crimes. In its representation of the subordination of nature – both human and nonhuman –, the film mounts a critique of “civilisation” and the inhumanity of sending those from the Northern Hemisphere to an environment which, as Plumwood writes of the Tasmanian wilderness, “challenged human survival” (29).
This article has been peer reviewed
- Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Postcolonial Ecocrtiticism: Literature, Animals, Environment, Routledge, London, 2010, p. 168.
- For a discussion of ecocinema see Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, “Shifting Paradigms: From Environmentalist Films to Ecocinema”, Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film, ed. Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2010, pp. 43-61.
- Emily Bullock, “Rumblings from Australia’s Deep South: Tasmanian Gothic On-screen”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, pp. 71–80.
- Jane Stadler, “Seeing With Green Eyes: Tasmanian Landscape Cinema and the Ecological Gaze”, published in this issue of Senses of Cinema.
- As her title indicates, in “Seeing With Green Eyes” Stadler also considers how Tasmanian cinema engages the viewer from an environmentalist perspective.
- See Bullock for a full discussion of this term.
- Bullock, p. 72.
- Emily Bullock, “Strange Silence in Van Diemen’s Land: An Interview with Jonathan auf der Heide”, Metro no. 162, 2009, p. 42.
- Quoted in Stadler.
- In Western dualistic thinking, hyper-separation is achieved when the subject or master eliminates his similarities with the Other or downplays them as inessential and thus precludes continuity with the Other. See Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Routledge, London, 1993, p. 49.
- See William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”, Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. Cronon, Norton, New York, 1995, p. 70.
- Bullock, “Strange Silence in Van Diemen’s Land: An Interview with Jonathan auf der Heide”, p. 43.
- Cronon, p. 75.
- Val Plumwood, “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism”, The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness From John Muir to Gary Snyder, ed. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998, pp. 655-656.
- Huggan and Tiffin, p. 170.
- Although as Huggan and Tiffin importantly note, the practice of cannibalism “is not and never has been widespread among either humans or animals” (p. 170).
- Auf der Heide notes to Bullock that he and director of photography Ellery Ryan gave the film “a de-saturated and high contrast look” in post-production. Bullock, “Strange Silence in Van Diemen’s Land: An Interview with Jonathan auf der Heide”, p. 43.
- Red is the only non-earthy tone emphasised in the film. It is the colour of the British officers’ and soldiers’ uniforms and there is an item of red clothing among the underwear of the convicts’ guard. The red of the convicts’ blood and of the sap Pearce sees however are particularly exaggerated in the film.
- Plumwood, “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism”, p. 655.
- Bullock, “Strange Silence in Van Diemen’s Land: An Interview with Jonathan auf der Heide”, p. 42.
- A team of volunteers of the Tasmania’s State Emergency Service (Search and Rescue) who retraced Pearce’s journey in 2008 did note the silence in the understorey of bush. See Simon Morris, “When Driven by Hunger”, Australian Geographic 29 June 2009: http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/when-driven-by-hunger.htm.
- Morris reports how intensely difficult Pearce’s journey was even for a fully prepared and fit group.
- Jane Stadler, “Mapping the Cinematic Journey of Alexander Pearce, Cannibal Convict”, Screening the Past no. 34, 2012: http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/07/mapping-the-cinematic-journey-of-alexander-pearce-cannibal-convict/.
- Huggan and Tiffin, p. 176. Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Continuum, New York, 2000.
- Adams, pp. 40-41.
- Adams claims that while the “aristocracy of Europe consumed large courses filled with every kind of meat […] the laborer consumed the complex carbohydrates” (p. 36).
- Stadler, “Mapping the Cinematic Journey of Alexander Pearce, Cannibal Convict”.
- Plumwood, “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism”, p. 657