The Nightingale was never going to be an easy conversation for Australia to have.
Director Jennifer Kent commits to showing the nation’s grim history with punishing scenes of colonial-era gang rape, infanticide and thoughtless brutality against Indigenous people. Audiences have been left reeling with reports movie buffs at film festivals have walked out of cinemas.
One of the film’s leading men Baykali Ganambarr understands, perhaps more than anyone, that the content is overwhelming.
“To the people that walked out, I know it’s pretty hard and brutal but jump into our shoes, this is what we had to go through,” he told HuffPost Australia.
“If it’s hard for you then think about how hard it was for our ancestors.”
The Nightingale, which has been nominated for 12 AACTA Awards, is the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict living in 1820s wild Tasmania. Having served her time, Clare wants nothing more than to receive her emancipation papers from her abusive master Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and enjoy freedom with her husband and baby. But Hawkins and his English soldiers commit an unthinkable crime against Clare and everything she holds dear.
Triggered with rage, Clare employs local Aboriginal man Billy (Ganambarr) to help track Hawkins and his rogue team from the south of Tasmania to the north.
More than just a rape revenge sub-genre, The Nightingale reflects massacres (often referred to as the Frontier Wars), racism, cruelty, and the sheer corruption that Australia was built on. Themes that have left a hangover on the generations to follow.
“Being a Blackfulla from a small island and a small community coming to a big city, on a daily basis I faced racism and being profiled,” explained Ganambarr, who hails from Elcho Island in North East Arnhem Land.
“Being called out, walking down the street and people calling me names. It’s crazy, and that was seven or eight years ago. It’s sad to see it happen in 2019, it’s nearly 2020 and racism still exists and it’s right there.”
While the Best Actor AACTA Award nominee feels honoured, proud and emotional to portray this story to the world, Ganambarr said he is glad Kent “didn’t sugar coat” the atrocities that haunt Australia.
“It’s brutally honest and it’s letting the world know this happened to our people and we’re still here in our country.”
Kent and producer Kristina Ceyton embarked on five years of extensive research on convicts, sexual abuse survivors and the history of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. A clinical psychologist was on set along with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders (in particular, prominent elder Uncle Jim Everett) who have sanctioned the re-telling of their history.
“That was part of the research and the construction of the story; it was ‘the norm’ for the colonisers that they attempted to eradicate the Aboriginal people without a second thought,” said Ceyton. “Feeling for the Aboriginal people wasn’t part of their psyche.”
Ganambarr added that he hopes The Nightingale “might help” Australians acknowledge the heinous crimes of the Frontier Wars.
“I tell the audience to have an open mind and learn what happened.”