Brutal film takes viewers to Hell on Earth

 

TWO moments in two cinemas a year and a world apart featuring The Nightingale, a revenge film set in Tasmania.

Venice Film Festival, September 6, 2018: Australian director Jennifer Kent's follow-up to 2014 feature The Babadook has just made its world premiere and the invited audience is going nuts.

A standing ovation seems to go on and on. Leading cast and crew members sitting in a theatre balcony rise to their feet in acknowledgement. All but one, anyway. Tasmanian Aboriginal man Jim Everett is pinned to his seat. He can hear the applause and at some level he recognises this is a moment of a lifetime - but he feels paralysed with anger and sadness after seeing the film in full for the first time.


WARNING GRAPHIC:

State Cinema, North Hobart, August 19, 2019: A preview of The Nightingale is held for TasWeekend and a couple of other media outlets ahead of a long-planned visit to Hobart by the acclaimed director and one of the film's stars, Baykali Ganambarr.

Having heard The Nightingale is a nightmare of violence, I steel myself for the viewing, but 20 minutes in I hit the floor in child's pose, sheltering from a devastating rape and killing scene. The screaming chaos seems to go on and on as I huddle, terrified the soldiers will murder the baby that won't stop crying and that I will witness them doing so. Eventually, an ominous silence descends, and I return to my seat to watch the most brutal period film I have ever seen. In fact, it's the most brutal film I have seen, period, in the raw pain it portrays.

Did it need to be so ferociously rendered? Whether or not the film's end-to-end violence is gratuitous is a question that has been troubling reviewers of The Nightingale, which came out in Australian cinemas two days ago, following UK and US release.

The film won two major awards at last year's 75th Venice International Film Festival, the special jury prize and the best new actor award, which went to Ganambarr for his role as a young black tracker. And it has picked up further prizes on the festival circuit since.

Along the way, too, there have been walkouts, including at the Sydney Film Festival in June, when Kent came out in feisty defence of her decision to depict Tasmania's darkest era the way she did.

1825. Van Diemen's Land. Australia. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict who has served her seven-year sentence, is desperate to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, of The Hunger Games and Me Before You), a frightening narcissist and rapist who refuses to release her from his charge.

Forced to endure his demands, from punishing sex to singing like the nightingale of the film's title for drunken soldiers, Clare's resentment and small acts of defiance escalate. After her husband Aidan confronts Hawkins, the lieutenant and his cronies respond with the brute force that has me diving for cover.

Clare is left devastated and enraged. Unable to secure justice from the British authorities, she decides to chase and punish Hawkins when he leaves his post suddenly to secure a promotion up north.

Warned not to travel alone, she enlists the help of tracker Billy, played by newcomer Ganambarr in his first screen role.

As Billy reluctantly leads Clare through the wilderness on Hawkins' party's bloody trail, they are exposed to unremitting hostility from the elements and murderous Black War participants. Initially at odds, the bereaved Irishwoman and Lettere-mairrener man, also 21, bond under pressure - and their affinity grows as the cost of revenge mounts.
 

A few days after the Hobart screening, I sit down with The Nightingale's Aboriginal consultant, Jim Everett, and lead actor Ganambarr at the Macq01 Hotel's Storytelling Bar, in the same waterfront precinct where convicts were once unloaded.

Though separated by half a century in age and the length of the country by homeland, there's an easy rapport between the two men.

Having spent months filming The Nightingale around Tasmania - from the Huon Valley to Oatlands and the freezing Central Highlands - they are chuffed to find themselves side by side again, Everett having joined the national promotional tour for this last, homecoming leg.

Both are island men. Though he spends plenty of time with extended family around Hobart, home for Everett, 77, is Cape Barren Island, one of the Furneaux Group off the state's North-East Coast.

Ganambarr, who turns 25 today, hails from Elcho Island off the north coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The Yolngu man is a dancer with the established Djuki Mala troupe. He took a punt and auditioned for The Nightingale after a friend tagged him in a casting callout on Facebook.

Everett, a Plangermairreenner man whose Aboriginal name is pur-lia meenamatta, is a writer, poet and playwright. He was sought out for his cultural knowledge by the filmmakers, having previous documentary-making experience. After reading a script outline, he leapt at the chance to be involved, agreeing to advise on the film's depiction of Aboriginal culture, including language, costumes, production and props design, and other elements including the ritualistic use of ochre.

"I thought, I've got to make this film, I've got to be there," says Everett, whose contribution Kent has described as crucial.

 

Baykali Ganambarr, left, and Jim Everett. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN
Baykali Ganambarr, left, and Jim Everett. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN

 

Present throughout filming, Everett had to swing into crisis management mode early on when an elder from the Wadeye Aboriginal Community in the Northern Territory, cast as older tracker Charlie, withdrew from the film just before his scenes were filmed.

"When the elder pulled out, the three young fellas who also had roles in the film also withdrew out of respect," says Everett.

"You could see the hurt in their faces and how much they wanted the opportunity, but that's the way it works in the culture up there.

"I had to go up to Wadeye and find three more actors. Right at the knell, the plane waiting to take off at the airport, I finally got permission from another elder to take three other young fellas. It was an important part of making sure the film was not held up."

He adds that cinemagoers should keep an eye out for a cameo by Danzel "Baker" Boy, the multi award-winning Arnhem Land rapper and 2019 Young Australian of the Year, who plays a prisoner being led through the bush in yoke and chains.

The film's violence is still front of mind when I meet the men, but first we return to that moment on the balcony at Venice.

"They stood up and faced us," Everett says of the who's-who audience. "We were on a balcony and everyone stood up, but I couldn't get out of my seat. I was angry and sad, all mixed into one, seeing for the first time on screen what had happened to my ancestors, how brutal it was, how devastating it was, my family running around in the bush while people were trying to shoot and kill them."

His blue eyes fill with tears.

"I get quite emotional about it and I probably will again tonight," he says, ahead of that evening's special screening for the local Aboriginal community and the 70 Tasmanian cast and crew who worked on the film production, which injected about $4.5 million into the local economy.

Watching the film for the first time at Venice was also a powerful experience for Ganambarr. "There were so many things I felt really, really sad and emotional about," he says.

"Some scenes really hit me. One of those was the table scene [in which an old settler, sheltering Billy and Clare, invites the Aboriginal man to dine at his table against his wife's wishes, rather than on the floor].

"Another one was doing the ritual for Charlie [the older tracker forced to lead Hawkins' party north]. Seeing the places that we had been to, I felt the spirit there, but I also felt the energy: the pain, the cries, the sadness."

Growing up in the country's far north, Ganambarr knew next to nothing about Tasmania's Black War. It was Everett who talked to him about the attempted genocide and death of most of the thousands of Aborigines who had lived across lutruwita (Tasmania) for more than 40,000 years.

"I knew a little bit," says Ganambarr. "I knew that the Tasmanian people faced extinction, but I was shocked when I found out how bad it was when I met Jim and he started talking about the history.

"What Tasmanian Aborigines dealt with was so much more than the mainland in the brutality, the big war going on and the massacres.

"Growing up, listening to the stories of the elders about how our ancestors were treated back then, I had a bit of a picture of that struggle in my head. But seeing it portrayed in the movie for the first time was a huge shock."

He says playing a part in the film makes him proud.

"It is a chance to show the history of what happened to our people. Honestly, when I was in LA, people came up to me and no one seemed to know that Australia had Aboriginal people.

"I see this film as a platform to go out and show the rest of the world that we are still here."

 

Damon Herriman in a scene from The Nightingale. Picture: Matt Nettheim
Damon Herriman in a scene from The Nightingale. Picture: Matt Nettheim

 

For Everett, the film is enormously powerful in its messaging.

"This discussion has been going on for a long time in Australia, and this film is adding to the discussion that we should be having about telling the truth," he says.

"Voice. Treaty. Truth was the theme of Naidoc Week this year and we need people from white Australia to acknowledge this is a shared history. This is the discussion we must have.

"This is a very important film for us in Tasmania, because we have never been portrayed in a film that tells our story."

The film comes as the state grapples with the darkest chapter of its history in multiple art forms and through disparate treatments. Even as The Nightingale launches, artist Julie Gough's major exhibition, Tense Past, which interrogates the impact of colonialism on Tasmania's first people, remains on show at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

"Julie Gough has an amazing mind," says Everett. "She titillates the brain and makes you really think about what happened, but it is not in your face. It sneaks up on you.

"With this film, it's right out there. That's a big difference ... but it all comes together as one truth."

I ask if he had reservations about working on this truth-telling mission under the leadership of a non-Aborginal person in writer/director Kent.

"I don't believe in closing the door and I don't believe in closing cultural boxes," he says. "Jennifer Kent is an extraordinary director and a lot of really serious research and ethical preparation was done for this film."

Nothing was left to chance, he says. His team was consulted on every aspect of the portrayal of Aboriginal Tasmanians. Theresa Sainty of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre coached Ganambarr in palawa kani language, dancer Craig Everett taught him the Mangana (black cockatoo) dance, and Trish Hodge of Nita Education offered advice in prop-making. Everett also liaised with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community on all sorts of matters along the way.

Filming of The Nightingale in Oatlands.
Filming of The Nightingale in Oatlands.


Everett says the film has to be as violentas it is to be truthful. The sustained onscreen trauma may reflect the sustained nature of frontier violence at the time, but critics are divided.

Everett makes no apologies for the harrowing back-to-back scenes that comprise The Nightingale (and it is worth noting that rape scenes focus on women's pain rather than body parts).

"It's what happened. Maybe it seems so violent [to us] because it's here [in Tasmania] and it's us," he says. "If you watch Game of Thrones or the Vikings, the violence is far more extreme."

Some critics, though, think the film clobbers viewers over the head with its message, and at a cost. Film writer Vicky Roach, in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, is one of them. "The Nightingale is a powerful and unflinching exploration of aspects of our history that most of us would rather forget," she wrote.

"It's an important Australian film. But it's not nearly as fertile a piece of storytelling as Kent's groundbreaking 2014 horror film The Babadook. Kent's directorial debut was built on layers of subtext. Her follow-up is direct almost to the point of didacticism. A more nuanced portrayal of good and evil might have gone a little deeper."

Film and art critic John McDonald took a different tack in the Financial Review: "One wonders if those viewers who walked out of the film complaining about 'gratuitous violence' have been to see the new Quentin Tarantino flick. For Tarantino, gratuitous violence is half the fun, but with Kent, the violence is all calibrated towards one end: providing a portrait of what life was like in an awful, isolated British penal colony in 1825."

I was planning to ask director Jennifer Kent about all of this, but she is a no-show today, illness having forced her withdrawal from not only this Tassie trip at the last minute but from next month's Venice Film Festival competition jury panel.

In a supplied director's statement, she had this to say:

"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. "

Kent said she was determined the violence in the film would be an honest and authentic depiction.

"I took a trip to Tasmania and travelled the path that Clare and Billy would have gone," she said. "And as the story emerged it became clear there was no way I would embark on the film without very close Aboriginal consultation. I asked around and everyone said, 'Jim Everett is the man for you'.

"Many Australians know what happened in certain parts of the country during that time, and other people don't. A lot of people outside Australia know nothing or very little about it. I couldn't go into this part of our history and water it down.

"Like many other countries that have been colonised, the indigenous people of Australia were subject to horrendous treatment by the colonisers. The systems of power were brutal, and I wanted The Nightingale to reflect this."

 

The movie poster for The Nightingale.
The movie poster for The Nightingale.


She said Tasmania had always fascinated her.

"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.

"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."

In other words, the truth hurts and the film may not be for everyone, but as its promo line says, this nightingale's song will not be silenced.

The Nightingale (rated MA15+) was released nationally on Thursday and is playing at the State Cinema in North Hobart and the Star Theatre in Launceston


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