Home » Jennifer Kent: Refocusing on the feminine in The Nightingale

Jennifer Kent: Refocusing on the feminine in The Nightingale

07 Sep 2018 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_

jennifer kent the nightingale
(Source: Twitter/@la_Biennale)

A front runner for the highly-coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent is living the message of her new film The Nightingale, countering bigotry with compassion.


Jennifer Kent is on a boat.


It’s the morning after the first press screening at the Venice Film Festival of her sophomore feature film offering, The Nightingale. The main event, the official premiere, is still a few hours away and Kent is embracing the day whole-heartedly.


“It was a labour of love” she tells The FIERCE on the phone as she thanks the person helping her on board,  “It was really tough to make in terms of the location [the Tasmanian wilderness],  and the subject matter. We had such a beautiful cast and crew, and a lot of them are here [in Venice]. It’s so fantastic to share the success with each other it’s a really special day. We have our premiere tonight, dream come true!”.

The Nightingale has been ruffling feathers at the 75th Venice International Film Festival since the competition line-up was released for one simple reason, it’s the only movie directed by a woman.


Immediately following the first press screening, Twitter was buzzing, praise and tipping it as a frontrunner for Venice’s prestigious Golden Lion prize, commentary on the violence, and the unpleasant distraction of a sexist slur yelled out by one of the attendees at its conclusion.





“I’ve avoided Twitter” she succinctly says when asked for a reaction.


A couple of hours later, Kent tells the international media at her Venice press conference how she responds to sexist or racist reactions, as occurred in that screening.  “I think it’s of absolute importance to react with compassion and love to ignorance. There is no other option. The film speaks very clearly to that,” she says.
Why critiques of a woman’s work so frequently become an attack on the woman herself across entertainment, politics and society in general remains a major concern. Were it a general screening the comments would not be worthy of oxygen, and they themselves still aren’t – but that it was a media preview makes it worth noting the man’s peers have widely condemned his comments. The festival has also stripped the blogger of his media credentials.




Kent has always been a vocal advocate for better representation of the female gaze on our screens, and has suddenly become global poster-girl for gender-equality behind the camera as the sole female out of 21 directors in the competition line-up.


“I don’t think about it, because first and foremost I’m a filmmaker and that is really the most important thing,” she says. “I’ve made what I consider a feminist film and I really want the focus on the film and I think an undue focus on my gender is another form of sexism to be honest.”.


She’s not a fan of the focus, but believes the bigger picture is one of diversity presented without discussion.  “For other women to have their voice in high profile prominent festivals such as Venice, it’s vital. And I feel confident and very hopeful that the tide is turning and that things are changing, and I have a feeling they’ll change pretty rapidly after this year”.


All signs point to her being right. Venice this week became the latest festival to sign a gender-parity pledge . “I think these things are important. I don’t think anyone at any stage of the filmmaking process should be passing the buck” Kent says. She believes the issue of inclusion goes beyond gender “It’s not just women, Indigenous filmmakers need a voice, filmmakers of colour, filmmakers from developing countries, from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. These people need to have greater inclusion because it’s cinema’s job to reflect the world and if it’s only representing a small slice of the population it’s not able to do its job. We need to change things”.



Venice’s artistic director Alberto Barbera has firmly stated his opposition to any quota being placed on female representation, pointing the finger at an industry that fails to trust women at the helm of major productions. “Many producers and financiers don’t trust women, for example. They think they can’t control a set. That’s a mistake.” he told Deadline. “It’s a problem of access… We got around 2000 submissions in total and only 23 per cent were from women directors”. Barbera also said he felt quotas can be offensive or humiliating and films should be selected on merit not gender.


Kent had no trouble finding a team to back The Nightingale in the wake of her 2014 thriller The Babadook. Starring Essie Davis(Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Game of Thrones),  Kent’s writer-director debut premiered to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, won more than 50 awards, terrified audiences across the globe and put her on Hollywood’s radar. She received offers to work in the US, but instead chose another writer-director project close to her heart and on Australian shores. She’s teamed-up with fellow producers Kristina Ceyton, who she worked with on The Babadook, Steve Hutensky (The Human Stain, 2:22)  and fellow-Australian Bruna Papandrea (Big Little Lies, Gone Girl),  who describes Kent as one of the best directors in the world.


Shot in Tasmania, The Nightingale is a revenge thriller set in 1825. It stars Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones, The Fall) as Irish convict Clare, chasing Sam Claflin’s (The Hunger Games franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) British officer through the wilderness to avenge his violence against her family. To aid her hunt, she enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr), marked by the trauma from own violence-filled past.




Despite this, Kent described her film as one about “love, compassion, kindness in a dark world”. While the characters and their story are her creation, the world they inhabit is not fiction, stresses Kent. “It’s something that happened in our country 200 years ago. I’ve softened it a little to make it bearable, but it was very important to me to be honest and authentic, and compassionate – but not pull any punches.”


It may be historically set (costuming by The Dressmaker talent Margot Wilson), but we’re not meant to see The Nightingale as a period piece “The violence that created those situations in colonialism 200 years ago is the same violent mindset that creates the problems we have in the world now, so to me it’s not just a period film. It’s actually a modern times film and I feel very passionate about putting that out there,” she says.


It brings Kent no joy being the only female director in the competition. But, as Papandrea points out to the Venice crowd at their media conference, female-driven stories are about having women at a variety of different stages of the film-making process not exclusively directing, and many of other 2018 offerings can boast that.




“I am not a person that likes to be put forward as a celebrity or you know the only woman anywhere,” Kent tells The FIERCE. “I’m just a filmmaker serving the story. And I think that everything that I think and feel about women in any context can be found in this film we’ve made, and that we’re so very proud of.”.


The Nightingale is both feminine and violent, Kent showing us the two are experiences coexist  “If there are people that are shocked by it or offended this is wonderful to me, I’ve done my job because violence towards women is shocking, it is offensive.”

“If there are people that are shocked by it or offended this is wonderful to me, I’ve done my job because violence towards women is shocking, it is offensive.”

“So often in the cinema world audiences are anaesthetised to violence and a dozen or a hundred deaths can play out on screen without audiences feeling a thing That’s objectionable and highly irresponsible.” she adds.


The treatment of women, racism, nationalism, cruelty, disregard for human life – it’s a tad terrifying the parallels Kent offers between today and an era we look back on as shamefully barbaric. The question she asks; “How do we maintain our humanity in very dark times? How do we look at one another in very dark times? – and I think we’re in those times still and it’s very important how each individual acts, what choices they make”.





By contrast, Kent’s mood is bright, she’s excited to show her cast what their blood sweat and tears in Van Diemen’s Land has become. “A lot of them haven’t seen it – wonderful Baykali Ganambarr hasn’t, I’ll be sitting beside him as he watches it, and he’s extraordinary” you can hear the warmth and smile in her voice “It will be wonderful to share the film with these brilliant actors.”


The Nightingale will premiere in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival in October and will release nationally in 2019.