Interview with Jonathan auf der Heide, director of Van Diemen’s Land

Jonathan auf der HeideDirector Jonathan auf der Heide’s feature film debut, Van Diemen’s Land, is one of the most realistic cannibal movies ever made. Retelling the woebegone true story of Alexander Pearce and seven other convicts who escaped into the Tasmanian wilderness in 1822 and started eating each other in order to survive, auf der Heide deliberately avoided horror, gore, flashy photography and other elements viewers have come to expect from cannibal pictures (read my review here). A week after the film’s national release (it is now screening in cinemas across the country) auf der Heide and I shared an illuminating conversation about bringing Pearce’s story to the screen.

A couple of people associated with Van Diemen’s Land approached me to do this interview and both had read my review. They said something along the lines of ‘well we know you didn’t love the film but you said some good things about it so perhaps you’d like to interview Jonathan?’ I said of course I would like to speak to you because there are lots of interesting things to discuss about Van Diemen’s Land, even if I didn’t give the film a rave review.

Yeah, I read your review and it was quite early when I saw it because there weren’t that many online at that point. I would be lying if I said it didn’t break my heart to read it, but if you make a film as uncompromising as Van Diemen’s Land you can’t expect everyone to love it. When they said to do an interview with you I thought yeah why not – all the points you said in the review, at least they were thought out and discussed and it’s open to debate. Looking at the comments of people who looked at the review is really exciting for me, to see that there are people out there who actually really get this film and get something out of it.

For me the most impressive aspect of Van Diemen’s Land was its realism. It’s easily one of the most realistic cannibal film I’ve ever seen. I’m assuming that achieving authenticity was one of your major concerns?

It really was. When I heard the story of Alexander Pearce I thought it was one of the most amazing stories – cannibal or not – I’d ever heard. Eight men go into the forest and through extraordinary circumstances they have to kill and eat each other in order to survive. I thought there are two ways you can approach this: you can go the horror film thriller aspect of who’s gonna be next, but the fact is that most of the people who are going to be interested in this film initially are those who know the story and know it very well. I thought a lot of them are going to know who is up next, so to highlight that kind of misses the point for me with the story of Alexander Pearce, because I think you can go a lot deeper with it. To look at it as a sort of metaphysical journey, it’s an exploration of what it is to be human and what we do in these extraordinary circumstances in order to survive and how this has happened since the dawn of time. There are plenty of films out there that glorify the violence and the blood and gore aspect and that didn’t interest me. I think there is much more to the story than that.

Van Diemen's LandWhat you’re alluding to is that Van Diemen’s Land is very far from a generic horror film. The performances are all very realistic, there is very little gore, no action scenes and so forth. It’s like you’ve deliberately avoided all the obvious things. Is that an accurate impression?

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