Film, Music, News & Commentary

Death, Liberty — and Tasmania

| |

The Tasmanian Breath of Fresh Air film festival returns for its third year running from today until Sunday in Launceston. Expanding and adapting for 2015, one of the event’s highlights is set to be the red carpet launch of Death or Liberty, a documentary looking at the political prisoners who arrived on the island’s shores in the 19th century.
Produced by Tasmanian-based Roar Films, the docudrama is based on the work of Tony Moore, a cultural historian whose 2010 book (of the same title) highlights Irish independence fighters, American and Canadian republicans, Chartists and unionists who resisted British power and were thus sent to our shores between 1788 and 1868.
Shown on Irish and Welsh television in September and scheduled to be shown on the ABC in January 2016, Death or Liberty is a collaboration between Irish and Tasmanian film-makers and has been filmed in both sides of the world. Aside from writers and historians, co-directors Keith Farrell and Stephen Thomas have also roped in Billy Bragg, Lisa O’Neill, and the co-directors’ brother Mick Thomas for the soundtrack.
It’s not the first Apple Isle arts event opened with a convict-centred collaboration of the Thomas brothers. MONA’S Dark Mofo in 2013 was inaugurated by a theatre musical production called Vandemonian Lags. Vignettes featuring Tim Rogers and Brian Nankervis gave context to 19 musical performances by Australian musicians including Darren Hanlon, Ben Salter, and Mick Thomas.
These are not the first invocations of the Tasmanian convict legacy, but as Stephen Thomas commented before the release of Vandemonian Lags, “the canon of convict folk music is very thin”. And although a trip to any of Tasmania’s many folk festivals might have you believing otherwise, the truth is that given our national mythology regarding convicthood in this country, it’s surprising that there have been less attempts — and especially effective ones — to develop a nuanced and mature mythos from of the Tasmanian convict experience.
That being said, as Daily Review pointed out last year, Australia has embraced the “sad-sack, gloomy, moody, creepy Tassie”, particularly in the world of film and television. Depictions of the pestilence and violence of early colonial days, caught in the gothic gloom of a cold rainforest or a sandstone gaol town, are certainly evocative. The maudlin stories are often true, of course: convict records from Van Diemen’s Land are recognised on the UNESCO World Heritage register, and the arrival and expansion of these bizarre British settlements created one of the most intense cultural collisions on the planet. Things have been pretty grim down here.
But the risk of caricaturing the men and women who came to this island at the bottom of the world against their will is high. Especially when the intention is to turn them into heroes, which is Death or Liberty’s intention: “These revolutionaries, liberal journalists, trade unionists and passionate intellectuals arrived in Australia in convict chains, but laid the basis for our democracy,” proclaims the blurb for Thursday night’s (November 5) film.
Vandemonian Lags had its point to prove too: it contrasted the 1855 Victorian Parliament’s Act to refuse ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land to cross Bass Strait with our federal asylum seeker policy. The show didn’t belabour its moral, though, and aside from its humour (Tim Rogers howling about a colonial brothel in the Launceston General Hospital) what made it successful was that it was based on the thorough research, thanks to Stephen Thomas’s involvement with University of Tasmania-aligned convict research project Founders and Survivors.
Nevertheless, the sentimentality of that 2013 production’s title track was a bit too much for one YouTube observer, who has commented under the uploaded video that he or she grew up near the pubs of Salamanca sung about in the song, and it wasn’t so bad: “Bit too misty-eyed for my liking”.
Perhaps they would be more satisfied with local folk-punk mob The Dead Maggies, who have just released their own energetic ode to Jørgen Jørgensen, Danish-born pirate, would-be revolutionary in Iceland, and finally a drunkard convict whose greatest memorial is a caricature carved onto the side of a bridge in the centre of Tasmania.
“He was an adventurer who wrote his own legends while drinking, gambling, spying and pirating,” says the band’s front man G.T Mongrel. “He took on armies. He took on whole countries. He faced the executioners block and survived. He lived life as hard as life can be lived. He was a punk.” And, sure, much of that is not strictly true, but it’s a humorous adaptation of a truly curious character from convict history. Without need for portrayals of avaricious landowners, chivalrous-but-rapacious bushrangers, brainless, toothless convicts, or cyborg thylacines.
The dense social connections, long memories and lingering rivalries — all set within a few small towns surrounded by mountains and sea — make the pigeon-holing of goodies and baddies, the archetypal portrayals, untenable. There are too many complicated stories, which is also precisely what also makes the stories gold-mines for literature, song, and mythology.
The political prisoners were eclectic souls who came from disparate backgrounds in their countries of origin, and offer a contrast to the usual depiction of Vandemonian convicts. They were usually literate, for example, and many of them wrote their own memoirs. Which is what makes the prospect of Death or Liberty exciting: the Thomas brothers’ enthusiasm for working with historians and collating these narratives within the formats of film and song gives the wider society a chance to be introduced to the curious characters whose contributions have shaped Tasmanian and Australian society.
Meanwhile, the Tasmanian Government boast of a good return on their $150,000 investment through Screen Tasmania: over 90 cast, crew and extras were employed during filming.
And the Breath of Fresh Air will be rolling out the red carpet on Thursday night with what they are calling Death or Liberty‘s world premiere, and following it up with what they are vowing will be ‘the one of Launceston’s parties of the year’, with Mick Thomas and his band the Roving Commission performing. If they delve into the narratives of Tasmania’s past for those of us partying with a pinot noir in hand, it’ll provide a stark contrast from a night at one of “those pubs of Salamanca”, way back when in our gloomy past.
[box]Image: A Still from Death or LibertyThe Tasmanian Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival is from November 4-8[/box]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *