Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent has quickly emerged as someone able to balance a dark intensity with an emotional earnestness, creating movies that are both shocking and moving. Her debut feature, 2014’s “The Babadook,” launched its title creature into the popular imagination and is already widely considered among the best contemporary horror films. Her second feature, “The Nightingale,” now in theaters, has generated controversy and conversation ever since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it won two prizes.
“The Nightingale” is set in Tasmania in 1825, where Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, is desperate to be free from Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the cruel soldier she works under. Hawkins and a few of his men leave their post after inflicting unspeakable crimes and harrowing abuse on Clare. She decides to pursue them and reluctantly hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), setting off through an unforgiving terrain. Clare and Billy must overcome their own suspicions and misconceptions about each other on their way to a shared trust and understanding.
The film’s extreme depictions of rape and other violence — the press notes warn that the film “features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence toward women, violence toward children, and violence motivated by racism” — have been a flashpoint. After one screening of “The Nightingale” in Venice, an Italian journalist shouted “whore” when Kent’s name appeared during the end credits. Then it was reported that there were numerous walkouts when the film played at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
Yet the payoff the movie provides is more than worth the challenge of getting through its most difficult moments. As Times critic Justin Chang wrote, “The conventions of the revenge thriller are somehow both cannily fulfilled and skillfully subverted, but ‘The Nightingale’ has more on its mind than an exercise in genre. This is a profound and difficult film, an attempt to grapple with the existence and mindless perpetuation of evil, and to suggest both the fleeting satisfaction and the eternal futility of vengeance. Nothing about it is easy, and everything it shows us matters.”
Kent spoke about the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and also recently sat for an interview in Los Angeles. The following is edited excerpts from both conversations.
It’s been almost a year since “The Nightingale” premiered. How do you feel about the response?
Jennifer Kent: It’s been incredible and tough and all sorts of things. It’s been such a wonderful experience to have people so moved by the film. It’s been classed as controversial, and it’s a war film. Not very nice things happen in war. I think we haven’t learned much by turning away from others’ suffering. So I feel very proud of the film. It took a lot for us to make it, and a year on, I feel proud of its trajectory so far.
In particular, there were reports of mass walkouts when the film recently played at the Sydney Film Festival. Were you there for that?
I was and it wasn’t as reported, surprise, surprise. It was pretty much gutter journalism. What I know of, because I was in the foyer, there was one woman who was very vocal and I don’t know the reasons for that. I think that’s good that she removed herself. But there wasn’t mass walk outs. It just didn’t happen.
When you were at the Venice Film Festival last year, you were the only female filmmaker in the competition and had to answer a lot of questions about that. Are you comfortable being put in this position as some kind of spokesperson?
No, I’m not. I’m a very private person. I’m an introverted person. I don’t like being in the public eye. I love putting everything I have into my stories. But that was a really unusual and quite distressing experience. I mean, not to be called a whore, I don’t care about that, but to kind of have to stand up for all of womankind, I can’t do that. I’m a filmmaker and I’d rather just be known as a filmmaker. I’d rather my films be known and I don’t care to be on public platforms trying to represent the whole of womankind. It was surreal.
But I think as a filmmaker, if you’re going to go to a place that’s challenging and you’re going to provoke people, then you have to expect something back and you have to just hold that. I see it as a social experiment. I think, “Oh, how interesting.” Sometimes it gets to me but most of the time you just have to let it go.
Did you ever have a concern, especially with the early scenes in the movie, that it would be too intense?
No. It’s the film that it is, it’s a war story. Look at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” — is anyone saying, “Oh, that’s too intense”? No, it’s a war. Someone’s there and then the next minute, their head’s blown off. This is the truth of war.
[In “The Nightingale”] I think the difference is it’s seen from a woman’s perspective, it’s very different. But sexual violence and violence toward children and women and old people and the vulnerable is a result of a war mentality. I [wanted] to explore a film about the necessity of love in very dark times. And so I had to show those very dark times and they are historically real. It’s not like I’m making it up for the sake of being provocative. It’s my history. I wanted to own that. ... I’m Australian whether my ancestors were directly involved or not. It’s a blind spot in Australia and I would have done it no favors by softening that history.
You’ve said you don’t see this as a revenge film. How so?
Well, I see it as a film about love. I see revenge as a part of that, that is thwarted. For me, a revenge film is like “I Spit on Your Grave” or “The Last House on the Left,” and these are films that deal with revenge and only revenge. That part of the story, it’s not edifying, it plays out in a way that I feel is more true to what I wanted to say within the piece. And that sort of burns itself out halfway through the film. And then what’s underneath that is what really interests me.
What’s underneath that enormous rage, and justifiable rage. And how does a person come back from that? How do they remain a human being? How can I look another human being in the eyes with love? And without spoiling it for an audience who hasn’t seen it, that scene on the beach at the end ... that to me is a miracle, that people can go through these things and still love.
You’ve spoken about the rape scenes and how you wanted to be very careful and conscientious regarding the point of view, the gaze of those scenes.
I think rape is violence and it can be distinguished in terms of what kind of violence it is, but I’ve had people say, “Do you think you have the right to show violent rape onscreen?” And I say, “I’m opposed to censorship, artistic censorship.” I think it’s a slippery slope to not a good place. And I think that the act of rape is a violent act and I have done everything in my power to portray it in the way a victim experiences it. And that’s all I can do. But I would never think that I couldn’t put that on the screen.
It’s all about the motivation behind the story. It’s how you tell a story and why you were telling that story. This whole film is about the damage of the feminine force and sexual violence. And violence against women, as we can see in the world, is a huge issue. And I don’t believe to turn our eyes away from it is going to help. I think it’s important to shed light on the darkness for us to evolve as human beings.
I would appreciate it if people have been through terrible things and they don’t want to watch this film, that’s a good idea. But “Oh, I don’t want to see that because it destroys my coffee after the movie. And I don’t want to think about that, I want to think about what I’m going to buy on Ebay”? That I have an issue with.
Can you talk about the sort of research you did, both in writing the movie and working with advisers during production?
Probably the most important one, the one that was make-or-break, was Uncle Jim Everett, who’s the Tasmanian aboriginal elder I approached at treatment stage. I didn’t have a script, I had a synopsis and treatment, and he said, “I’m too busy, but give me this to read and I’ll find someone to help you with this if I feel it’s worthy.” And then he read the synopsis and got straight back and said, “Well, I’m still too busy, but I can’t not do this. This is a story that needs to be told.” I would never have made the film without serious collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal people because there’s a history in Australian cinema of white people coming in and appropriating black stories and telling them without any consultation. And that to me is just like colonizing them all over again.
So Jim and I ... with Kristina Ceyton, the producer, worked as a team. We went to his home on Cape Barren Island and we got to know him and he then became a producer on the film who had a lot of say in what went into the script. He was a representative of his elders in the community and he went back to them and would ask their approval across casting, costuming ... every aspect of custom and ritual and a language all ran through Jim.
And then there was an army historian and we worked with a reenactor to make sure that all the protocols were correct. The costuming was made with traditional dyes and handmade, army costumes were made in the traditional way. We had an Irish language and cultural expert and an Irish dialect coach on set. We had a clinical psychologist from treatment stage all the way through to postproduction. ... It was a hefty project.
In Australia there has been a lot done recently regarding reconciliation and attempting to acknowledge native people and what colonialism did to them and their culture. Do you feel like this movie is part of that same conversation?
I think so. There will inevitably be the people who deny that it ever happened or that it wasn’t as bad as what we’re hearing and saying it was. It was attempted genocide. And I know there’s a lot of charge around that word, but it’s a word that’s finally being used in context. In the Australian context, there was a very heartfelt desire to eradicate an indigenous population. I mean, there’s no argument there in my mind. And so I think in Australia or America or anywhere else, any sort of so-called first world countries or developed countries, they don’t feel very developed. There’s a lot of racism and a lot of ignorance. But I do think that there are a lot of good, deep-thinking Australian people, I’ve seen them, I’ve spoken to them. And what’s heartening about this film is in Sydney, in the so-called mass walkout screening, I had a line out the door of young people, and I would doubt any of them were over 25. We chatted one after the other and they talked sincerely about their need to know more about their past, about the country’s past. So I feel very optimistic about it.
You seem like such a peaceful and thoughtful person. And yet you make these movies that have an intensity to them, and there’s something disturbing about them. Are there things inside yourself that you’re working out? How is it that you come to make these movies?
Kent: I think it’s things in the human condition that I’m working through. I tend to see things more universally rather than personally. So it’s not like, “Oh, I have this need to work out some issue, so I’ll do it in film.” It’s more asking the big questions. I made this film shortly after my mum died and we lost a family member. And so I was in a space where I was thinking, “Life is so short, so why are we so hurtful to each other?” And so it really came out of a place of love. My films don’t come out of a place of darkness. And they’re not nihilistic. They’re always heading toward the light. it’s just the way I’m built.