The Nightingale: Feminine exploration of Australia’s violent Colonial past

The Nightingale is an astonishing new Australian film from writer/director Jennifer Kent in cinemas now. It’s the follow up to The Babadook, Kent’s critically acclaimed 2014 film.

It traces the story of Clare, a young Irish convict woman free after serving her sentence is seeking revenge for the violent acts committed against her family. Set in 1825, Clare chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness after she’s denied justice from the British authorities. Clare meets Aboriginal tracker named Billy and eventually convinces him to help her. They journey deep into the land market by hostilities between the original inhabitants and its colonisers, in what is now known as ‘The Black War’.

Kent has said the inspiration for the film emerged from two profound places; the experience of deep personal loss, and questioning the state of the world. 

“I was in a particular frame of mind,” Kent recalls. I looked out at the world and was struck by how much violence was coming back at me. It was overwhelming and saddening. I wanted to explore that violence, and importantly, the fall-out from violence.” 

Kent set out to ask two important questions in the film; ‘What are the alternatives to violence and revenge?’ and ‘How do we retain our humanity in dark times?’ 

The Nightingale
Photo by Matt Nettheim

On the surface, The Nightingale explores the lengths young Irish female convict Claire Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) goes to enact vengeance on a group of brutal English soldiers who kill her family in the wilds of Tasmania in the 1825. She teams up with an equally brutalised Indigenous tracker (Billy) Mangala (Baykali Ganambarr) who has experienced his own trauma at the hands of these English oppressors. 

The violence is visceral and brutal but film director Jennifer Kemp doesn’t hide from the reality of this savage oppression from the colonial overloads of the time. During the first screening at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival a number of patrons walked out in protest at the brutal rape scenes depicted by Kemp. 

However, unlike her first film, the cult horror flick The Babadook, The Nightingale has a much deeper message about the treatment of both the transported convicts who suffered cruel punishments at the hand of the English as well as the Indigenous people, who fought bravely to protect their ancestral lands and customs from these white invaders. 

Kent herself has said she wanted to tell a story about violence. In particular, the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective

“To do this I’ve reached back into my own country’s history. The colonisation of Australia was a time of inherent violence; towards Aboriginal people, towards women and towards the land itself, which was wrenched from its first inhabitants.” 

“Colonisation by nature is a brutal act. And the arrogance that drives it lives on in the modern world. For this reason, I consider this a current story despite being set in the past. I don’t have all the answers to the question of violence. But I feel they lie in our humanity, in the empathy we hold for ourselves and others.” 

Many Irish political prisoners were transported to the colonies as punishment for their opposition to English exploitation of their homeland in Ireland. As a result, they were the most brutalised of all convicts who were transported to Australia from 1790s to the middle of the nineteenth century. Being sent to Van Diemen’s Land was the cruelest sentence of all. 

The director makes reference to this important story and forgotten part of our colonial history when Claire repeatedly tells Mangala that she isn’t English, “I’m Irish”. He tells her in turn that he is a Palawa man. It soon dawns on Mangala that she is oppressed too and she, in turn, begins to understand the brutal frontier wars raging around her. 

Kemp worked with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders and they agreed it was necessary to portray in The Nightingale the violence meted out to indigenous people at the time. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Mangala is invited to sit at the table with Claire and some good samaritans to eat a meal and he cries “this is my country”. Nobody says a word. 

Kemp has said she’s always had a fascination with Tasmania. 

“It was considered the most brutal of the Australian colonies, known as ‘hell on earth’ through the western world at the time. Repeat offenders were sent there; the rapists, murderers, hardened criminals. And severe punishments were devised for them to strike fear in the hearts of those back in Britain, to deter them from crime.” 

“Women on the other hand who’d often committed minor crimes were sent to Tasmania to even the gender balance. They were outnumbered eight to one. You can imagine what kind of an environment that would set up for women. It was not a good place or time for them. And in terms of the Aboriginal invasion, what happened in Tasmania is often considered the worst attempted annihilation by the British of the Aboriginal people and everything they hold dear.” 

The reason this film is important is because it attempts to reimagine the horrific nature of two systems based on exploitation and cruelty — colonial convicts and the frontier wars in the early part of the nineteenth century. Kemp attempts to restore the historical voice of Indigenous peoples who experienced the frontier wars. 

Aboriginal consultant Jim Everett, a Plangermairreenner man whose Aboriginal name is pur-lia meenamatta, was a consultant on the film. 

“Our people lived through two Ice Ages,” says Everett. “We were here when the ice melted and the land bridge that connected to the mainland became submerged. Evidence uncovered in one of the latest Tasmanian archaeological digs dates back 42,000 years.” 

“Besides the massacres and taking land away that happened, similar to anywhere else in Australia where Aboriginal people were invaded and colonized, kids were taken away from families and put in Tasmanian orphanages. When they were old enough, they’d be used as cheap labour on farms. It wasn’t uncommon for Aboriginal people to be working in all sorts of jobs, and a lot of Aboriginal people in Tasmania today are here because they survived by mingling in with white fellas, right across the state.” 

The Indigenous voice and the truth about Australia’s colonial past has been denied for generations by white Australians and most recently by the conservative class during the culture wars led by John Howard and Keith Windshuttle in the 1990s. 

Anthropologist WEH Stanner called this generational forgetting The Great Australian Silence, first coined in a 1968 Boyer Lecture, which means that a collective denialism exists in this country simply by not speaking or acknowledging harsh historical truths.

Mangala’s cry about the loss of his country is a way to reconstruct this voice so we never forget what happened during these wars that raged across the frontier of this country. 

Likewise, we shouldn’t forget the brutality of the penal system the cruelly oppressed the Irish on the other side of the world. 

There is much work to do to overcome this Great Australian Silence and Kemp has effectively captured something deeply moving and at the same time deeply disturbing in The Nightingale.

Keen to read a bit more?

On the Great Australian Silence

To read more on The Great Australian silence here’s an article from The Conversation on the problematic part of Australian history and a discussion on Late Night Live with Philip Adams

An academic approach attempting to understanding if frontier conflict amounted to genocide in the Journal of Genocide Research.

The Dreaming is a collection of essays by historian WEH Stanner on Australia’s history and relations with Indigenous people and here’s an article from The Monthly about Stanner.

Australian historian Henry Reynolds wrote Why Weren’t We Told about his personal journey that many white Australians had a distorted view of our history with Indigenous people.

On the History Wars

The History Wars, in brief, refers to the ongoing public and academic arguments about the nature of Indigenous dispossession and British colonisation of Australia.

You should be ashamed of yourself JW Howard and the conservative commentators and supporters who are history denyers. In The History Wars Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark Australia’s examine Australia’s politicised history.

Supporting female filmmakers

I don’t buy the rubbish that positive discrimination is unfair or not necessary. It’s important to take stock of women’s participation, whether it’s in boardrooms, creative industry, politics or workplaces in general and look for ways to support women’s equal participation. There have just been too many years and too many hurdles and institutional discriminations stopping women from taking their full place in all realms of society. We still very much need this.

Jennifer Kent had support from Screen Australia through development funding from the outset of this film. Kent and the film’s first producer Kristina Ceyton, who had produced The Babadook, received the inaugural Gender Matters: Better Deals funding, which aim to address the gender imbalance within the Australian screen industry. 

“It was an incredible privilege that we received the first Gender Matters support,” says Ceyton. “Screen Australia have been pivotal in supporting female filmmakers – producers, writers, directors and other creatives – as well as supporting female stories.” 

What exactly is gender matters? It’s a $5 million initiative to address the gender imbalance in Australia’s screen sector. It’s first target was ensuring creative teams that are at least 50% female were funded by the end of 2018. The Broad gives the High Five Broad Award for this excellent, and much-needed, initiative.

It’s new target is that by 2021-22, 50 per cent of key creatives across all projects getting development and production funding will be women. It plans to publish a breakdowns of key creative roles by format, and identify areas which might require targeted assistance, from August 2020.

The 50/50 Foundation, which is working towards gender parity in all facets of society, has taken a look at this much-needed and helpful program.

Jennifer Kent has spoken about her disappointment at the lack of female directors. So let’s hope we see more in the coming years supported by these types of programs.

Keen to watch some other films?

Journey Among Women is Tom Cowan’s 1977 violent, graphic film about nine convict women who escape into the Australian bushland and Aboriginal woman Kameragul (Lillian Crombie) befriends them.

Ten Canoes made by Rolf de Heer in 2006 is a mesmerising film starring David Gulpilil spoken entirely in Indigenous language. It is two intertwining stories about a group of men hunting for goose eggs in the present day intercut with an ancestral story about set in mythical times.

Director Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, the film adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s book based on the story of the infamous Indigenous Bushranger Jimmy Governor. It’s worth noting here that Keneally has said if he wrote the story again he wouldn’t presume to write from the Indigenous point of view.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of English settler William Thornhill and other colonial settlers establishing lives near the Hawkesbury River, inhabited already by the Aboriginal people. It’s a story drawn from Grenville’s family history research on the dark parts of Australian settler history, which references Stammer and the secret river of blood in Australian history. It was made into a TV series and a stage show, which has toured the world.

Image from The Secret River stage production in Adelaide.

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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