Sitting in stunned silence as the credits role to close The Nightingale, I feel my 20 years of schooling may have missed a beat.
Punishing scenes of colonial-era gang rape, infanticide, and deliberate brutality towards Indigenous people have caused audiences to leave theatres. Director Jennifer Kent committed to telling the grim truth about Australia’s history and it is peak uncomfortable viewing. But it is important viewing.
The Nightingale is the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict living in 1820s wild Tasmania. Clare wants nothing more than to receive her emancipation papers from her master Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) so she can enjoy freedom with her husband and baby. But Hawkins and his English soldiers commit an unthinkable crime against Clare so she employs local Aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help track Hawkins to take her bloody revenge.
Overwhelming scenes occupy the first 20 minutes of the film, scenes that have caused movie-goers to walk out of cinemas. A spectacle that made my own partner retreat to another room. Many won’t watch the film in fear of being triggered.
The themes are brutal but many think it is about time Australia had a conversation about the reality of colonial racism and the rape and murder of Indigenous peoples. Some historians report 20,000 Indigenous Australians lost their lives while resisting colonisation in the Frontier Wars between 1788 and the 1930s, while other sources say it was more like 60,000. The Nightingale portrays the crimes of this period, the devastating loss of life and the violence that Australia was built on.
Kent’s bloody narrative is a contrast to what many Aussie school kids were taught about the First Fleet and Governor Arthur Phillip’s apparent peaceful approach to First Nations in 1788. History books say Phillip invited Eora tribesmen Arabanoo and Bennelong to live in the Sydney Cove colony and serve as diplomats between the two cultures. We now know relations between settlers and Aboriginal Australians deteriorated since the days of Philip’s father-son relationship with the warrior Bennelong came to an end.
The film’s leading man Ganambarr agrees Indigenous history could have been more prevalent in Australian schools in the past.
“The story and history of Australia hasn’t been told properly, fully or truthfully in schools or in the books of history,” he told HuffPost Australia.
“The Nightingale shows the true history and depiction, it’s only scratching the surface, there’s more to it.”
Ganambarr added that he relied on his family and the community to pass on the real stories of the past: “Growing up around elders, I knew our history, I listened to their stories around the campfire, I grew up listening to this history. It’s amazing to learn more and more about our people.”
AACTA nominated Hotel Mumbai actress Tilda Cobham Hervey remembers the school curriculum focusing more on International history.
“I know everything about European history, we weren’t taught a lot about Australian history and I think that’s wild,” Hervey told HuffPost at the launch of Jan Logan’s Merindah jewellery collection.
“It’s really important.
“We need to take responsibility for what happened and find ways to keep inviting the communities in and telling their stories, it’s a beautiful culture.”
The Department for Education confirmed to HuffPost that non-government and government schools are “responsible for implementing the Australian Curriculum based on the needs of their students” and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures studies become a priority in Grade 10.
A spokesperson at the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) acknowledged schools are teaching Aussie kids the depth, wealth and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures although there is always room for progress.
“There are opportunities for more to be done to ensure teachers are appropriately supported to embed Indigenous Australian perspectives in their classroom practice,” NIAA told HuffPost.
Although some scenes in The Nightingale may be inappropriate for younger students, perhaps there is a case for senior high schools to swap out the Burke and Wills lessons and replace them with narratives like The Nightingale. If the date won’t change then perhaps the curriculum should.
The Nightingale is available to rent on Google Play now.