The Nightingale
Posted by:

Tara Judah

on Thu 28 Nov 2019

Facing Australian History

Posted on Thu 28 Nov 2019

Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale was marked by controversy in the press but the film is only as violent as the history it tells. Framing faces, Kent confronts the viewer with a powerful and philosophical contemplation of responsibility and culpability in the face of humanity.

Jennifer Kent's much anticipated follow up feaure to The Babadook (2014) is not a horror film, but its story is horrific. The Nightingale (Fri 29 Nov - Thu 05 Dec) was met with outrage at several of its international festival screenings; including walkouts at its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival and with sexist shouting from an Italian film critic in Venice. Kent's brutal but urgent storytelling deserves neither. Violence, she says, and I agree, should be confronting, it should be difficult to watch and, surely, such subject matter should not be "enjoyable" to view.

Available at the click of a finger, a film has a life online before most of us have a chance to see it. For The Nightingale, this reads as controversial. But the controversy is, in my opinion, misplaced. Its the film's reception that should be viewed as controversial, not the film itself. To illustrate the impact of the film's online life, I've made a short video essay that looks at both Kent's intention and the influence of reportage on a film's reception. You can watch the video below:

For me, the film is about violence, sure, but actually shows very little of it. Most of the violent scenes we see in the film are of close-ups of carefully centre-framed faces that Kent and her cinematographer Radek Ladczuk employ to contemplate the philosophical implications of the face-to-face encounter and to get us, as viewers, to face the affect, effect and impact of the violence.

Clare's (Aisling Franciosi) face holds the pain, anger and injustice of Australian history against women.

Billy's (Baykali Ganambarr) face holds the pain, anger and injustice of Australian history against the lands' Indigenous populations.

What's now known as Tasmania was once home to eleven or more Indigenous nations. From what history has left behind - piecemeal information in records and oral histories - fragments of those languages are known. The descendents of those languages have used the fragments to form and speak a recreated language, Palawa Kani. This is the language Billy speaks in The Nightingale. In consultation with Tasmanian elder, writer, poet and artist, Jim Everett, and working with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Commission, Kent has tried to give a voice to a silenced history and to ensure authenticity and respectful historiography in her fiction.

The faces she asks us to face are hurt, enraged and wronged. Facing them is not controversial, it is confronting.

Written by Cinema Producer Tara Judah.

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