Opinion: The extreme brutality of controversial film The Nightingale is the point

OPINION: It's increasingly difficult for white people to remain ignorant about the violent reality of colonisation. 

Pākehā living in New Zealand are the direct result of British invasion, as are our pale counterparts across the ditch in Australia.

In The Nightingale, currently playing at the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival, the personal grievances of its characters act as a cathartic analogy for the horrors inflicted by the British Empire.

The film unites two groups brutalised by the English - Aboriginal Australians and the Irish - in a revisionist revenge fantasy that sees them fight back against their oppressors. 

Set in Tasmania in 1825, The Nightingale follows a young Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who sets out to avenge her family after British soldiers commit a sickening act of violence. She pays Aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to show her the way through the dense bush, a pairing that exposes Clare's own racism but eventually leads to kinship in the face of a common enemy: the "whitefellas" who have destroyed both their lives.

There are two elements that differentiate this film from countless other revenge flicks - Kill Bill, True Grit, I Spit On Your Grave.

One is the setting: Aboriginal misery has been well-documented in cinema, from Rabbit-Proof Fence to Charlie's Country, but the historical origins of that misery have not been explored so thoroughly. The Nightingale's meticulously accurate portrayal of indigenous Australian culture against its striking Tasmanian Gothic background makes for an achingly beautiful film. 

Its other unique element is the violence. The Nightingale features some of the most stomach-churning brutality in recent cinematic memory - made all the more nauseating by the fact that it really happened to real Irish and Aboriginal people. 

Director Jennifer Kent says she intentionally held back from showing the true extent of colonial violence.

"If we showed what really happened in Tasmania in 1825, no audience could bear it," she said in response to walk-outs and anger at the film. 

The Nightingale has been accused of a gratuitous overuse of said violence, primarily - but not exclusively - against its female and Aboriginal characters.  

One audience member at the Sydney Film Festival was heard to scream: "She's already been raped, we don’t need to see it again."

But we do. The violence - repeated, drawn out, shuddering - is the point. It's the only fitting way to convey the brutality of the British Empire, something its descendants seem intent on downplaying or outright denying. 

The systematic dehumanisation of the Irish is represented by the torment of Clare, who endures not only sexual assault but a barrage of mockery and harassment from the soldiers for whom she has to sing "good old English folk songs". Irish subjugation under British rule is an essential piece of history that cannot be allowed to fade from memory. 

However it's the atrocities committed against the film's Aboriginal characters that should resonate with Antipodean audiences most acutely. 

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) in The Nightingale.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) in The Nightingale. Photo credit: Transmission Films

While New Zealanders are hardly innocent of choosing fiction over fact when it comes to our history, Australians are particularly prone to rejecting the ugliest aspects of theirs. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly dismissed the growing calls to rename Australia Day 'Invasion Day' to recognise the taking of Aboriginal land by force. Former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott were similarly unwilling to acknowledge colonial violence and its lasting impact. 

Popular shock jock Kyle Sandilands has mocked universities that teach students Australia was invaded rather than peacefully settled. 

"I'm not interested in who was here first and who did what," he said in 2016.

"Get over it, it's 200 years ago."

Humans are visual creatures, and it's hard for us to connect with dry historical statements, like the fact there were at least 270 state-sanctioned massacres of Aboriginal people between the 1790s and 1920s. 

It's easy to say atrocities that happened "200 years ago" cease to matter and that we should "get over it". 

It's another thing entirely to watch an English settler shoot an Aboriginal man before, chuckling, cutting his head off for a trophy. A scene from a fictional film, but one that communicates just a fraction of the British Empire's cruelty.

Cinema has a unique immersive power - the scale of the screen, the volume of the surround sound, the social and sometimes physical inability to get up and leave when things get distressing. No other medium can force the audience into the world of the film and spit them out, blinking, when the lights come up. 

The Nightingale is an unforgiving reckoning with colonial history. It is not an enjoyable watch, but it is essential viewing for audiences in this part of the world and beyond.

Sophie Bateman is a digital producer for Newshub. 

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