In The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent takes us back to 19th Century Tasmania. Her cinematography pulls us into the forests with tall trees and streams, and overcast clouds looming over. It draws us into the strange world she has now chosen to focus on. The world is an intense yet beautiful one.
This is a story of a woman who ventures out into the forest and befriends an Aboriginal native. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is the young woman who sets out, after an unthinkable act of violence, on a quest for vengenance. And while sexual and racial violence was a tragic way of life during colonization, there is love at the core of this tale and friendship between Claire and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). It’s a situation that Kent tells me has been misunderstood, to the point of her being called names. But it reflects a way of life in 1823, and Kent researched thr details with experts across the board in order to make certain she was telling the story accurately.
The Nightingale is a superbly intense and harrowing watch, yet a beautifully rivetting one. I caught up with Kent to talk The Nightingale and how a personal period in her own life inspired it.
You’ve made such an incredible film here with The Nightingale. Where did the story originate and how did wanting to tell it begin for you?
I was in a place of grieving. My mom had just died, and I lost a nephew. I think sometimes when big losses happen, you can look at the meaning of life and whey we’re here. I felt a broken and tender heart. I wanted to look at the importance of love and kindness and compassion. Those things are all very easy when we’re happy, and life is going well. I wanted to explore the necessity of those qualities in very dark times. I feel like we’re living in dark times.
There’s a lot of ignorance and a lot of violent reactionary behavior. I wanted to talk about it on a very personal level. It’s not my biography or anything, but it’s a story that is very dear to my heart because it’s the history of my country. It was a period in our history known as the Black Wars. It was a war between blacks and whites in Tasmania. It felt the right framework. I didn’t sit down and say, “Oh, I want to tell a historical story.” It was more that I wanted to talk about love in the face of violence and is it possible to still remain open-hearted?
We’ve never seen this language represented on screen before? But aside from the challenges of shooting in two languages, you also shoot out in the Tasmanian environment with the trees, the elements, and nature.
We had traditional Irish. We have English. We also use palawa kani. So, it’s three languages, and palawa kani has never been in a feature film. The language is a reconstructed language that has been reconstructed from remnants of eleven Aboriginal nations that existed within what is now considered Tasmania.
From the get-go, I knew I wouldn’t make this film without Aboriginal consultation. We looked for someone who could be that person, and there were only one of two people who could fit the bill. Uncle Jim Everett was the person who came on with such an open-heart and the sense that this is a shared story. “If you’re doing this the right way, which you’re doing with me, then you have the permission to tell that story.”
He wanted it to be told because it hasn’t been told. He felt like I did. Despite how tough it is, the world needs to hear about it. The world needs to understand that it’s a historically accurate story.
In terms of how it was to shoot it, it might sound dramatic to say this, but it nearly did us all in. It was a film shot in the wilderness. There were no contingency days. There were no backup plans. It was a film largely shot outside. I wanted a film shot in overcast weather, and it was stressful. Beyond that, the subject matter – me and Radek Ladczuk would say to each other, “Phew, that scene’s over. Tomorrow, it’s this scene.” It was tough. I have a commitment to telling this material authentically and honestly and sensitively. After the film finished and after the edit was over, I really felt wrecked for a year. I’m still recovering. [laughs]
We’re still making you talk about it.
It’s wonderful to talk about it with someone who understands the reasons for the film. It’s hard when people don’t understand and label you, “The problem.” I’ve been called everything from a whore to a racist to a misogynist, and it’s deeply hurtful because I couldn’t care more about these elements of the story.
To be misunderstood is one of the cons of being a director. It’s common.
In terms of the violence that we see, what I found so striking about the way you shoot it is you show humanity. You show the faces, the emotion and it’s not gratuitous.
I think most people say, “Oh it’s so brutal. It’s relentless.” With every act of violence in the film, I made a commitment to us investing something in the person that is experiencing that. Even if they’re only on screen for five minutes or the whole time, we know enough.
There’s even recent films where Aboriginal language has not been subtitled and I think that’s appalling. How can we feel what they’re feeling if we’re not in their skin or their shoes, experiencing what they’re experiencing? I tried to make every moment in the film that was tough, a moment that we connected with.
There’s so much violence in cinema. It’s not the violence. I think it’s the treatment of it that has upset people. But isn’t that okay to sit after a film and feel something negative and process that? I think we’re living in a society where film has become a diversion, and it’s not a reflection of life. It’s a diversion from it.
There’s a percentage of the population that feels resentful, and they’re put through something they don’t want to experience.
On that subject, have you found audience reaction to be different say around the world, and different in America than say to Europe?
I can’t say it’s different. I can’t say, “Australians feel this and Americans feel that.” I can say that across the board, there are extreme reactions. I think the one thing that unites the reaction is that people feel a shift in their body watching it. They felt a visceral response. Sometimes that can be positive. Aisling and I have had people come up to us after the screen and wanting to tell us their stories. I’ve had people who have been abused say to me that the film made them feel less alone. It made them feel a comfort. I have to take heart in that. This is the intention of the film – it is to ultimately offer love. The film has love at the center of it.
When we’ve been faced with responses like that, I feel incredibly moved. I would want that for people. I want them to feel comfort.
I think you really feel that when watching the film, at its core. Okay, let’s talk about creating the balance between being creative and writing a story that’s fictional while steeping it in historic reality.
While Clare and Billy’s story is not a recorded historical story, the material is so important. It needed to be rendered so carefully. I had to create those characters as if they were real.
Clare was a convict and those women were habitually raped. It was systemic. It was rife. The laws didn’t protect them. They were given to a master, and the master would rape them. Say if they fell pregnant, they were sent to prison. Hard labor. For the crime of unwed pregnancy. Meanwhile, the master was just distributed another convict.
This was the historical reality. I built both Clare and Billy similarly. There were a lot of young people like Billy whose parents were murdered or lost. These young children were taken in as slaves and were chained at night, so they wouldn’t runaway. They were forced to speak English and beaten if they spoke their own language.
While the characters are fictional, their history and their backstory is not. It fits with the world of the film. I did five years of research for it.
You bookend the film with Irish songs and Clare singing.
In all aspects of the film, we had historical experts. We had and Irish expert helping us with the Irish language. Carl Gon, who’s an Irishman, his wife is a singer in Ireland, but he’s a cultural expert. He helped us with the Irish language. He helped me – he was sensitive to helping me source traditional songs that would reflect the character’s state of mind. It was a mixture of both him looking and me looking. Some I found and some he found. He was able to substantiate would this have been sung by her?
We went along with how similar Aboriginal and Iris culture is on many levels. When I say similar, I mean the need for song. Song as a deep spiritual experience and a definition of identity, culture and home.
The Irish song is still one of the only ways that many Irish people connect with their traditional language. Same as Billy, those songs are a ritual. They are profound. It’s the reason I didn’t have a musical score because the music that is sung is so profound, how could we compete with that.
Along the way, the Aboriginal songs, Jim took the lead on that. Baykali offered the songlines of his own experience, and he offered the music.
The Nightingale is released August 2.