Jennifer Kent: The Only Woman in the Village

August 27, 2019
We spoke with filmmaker Jennifer Kent at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where her film The Nightingale was the only one directed by a woman that was in competition – it won a Jury Prize and an award for actor Baykali Ganambarr. She described herself as 'The Only Woman in the Village'.

“It’s not a great honour,” Jennifer Kent told us about being the only woman in competition at Venice. “It’s a sadness for me. I hope it’s the last year that any woman has to endure that, and I think that it takes away from the work itself, puts an unrealistic expectation on me to represent all of womankind. I think we need gender parity, we need Indigenous filmmakers, filmmakers of colour, people who don’t identify as cisgender male or female. There are so many people that need to be included in cinema for it to become truly representative of the world we live in.”

2019 Venice has doubled the number of female filmmakers in competition, but there’s still a very long way to go, just like the depiction of our own Indigenous history.

“Unfortunately, this is a true depiction of our history,” said Kent. “It really is a creation, but the world that they live in is … unfortunately, accurate. And I think, worse. In Tasmania they made a concerted effort to annihilate the original people. And for many years in school, we were taught that they’re extinct. Well they’re not, but enormous damage was done. It’s really important to tell that story accurately. I think in Australian cinema, it has been done, but, often, people soften the stories.

How did you come across this story?

I was really disturbed by the violence in the world. And I thought, “What is going on? How can I explore the need for love and compassion and kindness in even the darkest of times?” And immediately, our history came back. And I think it’s good to put stories in the past because it gives people a bit of distance to explore the themes, and not feeling attacked. Just to have that one step removed. But for me, it’s a film that deals with completely modern issues.

You touch on the indigenous themes, but the film is also about a woman’s plight, an Irish one played by Aisling Franciosi.

Irish convicts were seen as the scum, and women were seen as worse than the men. They were the lowest on the rung. Because women had a greater height to fall from and they were treated like prostitutes. If a woman was raped by a master and became pregnant, she was put in hard labour for the crime of unwed pregnancy. That’s the kind of lack of compassion that existed at the time.

Women were brought in … Tasmania was the worst place with repeat offenders, rapists, murderers. And the women were brought in with much, much lesser crimes to populate, to propagate… it was a ratio of 1 to 8. So, here were all these women in this really dire environment. It was a time of no respect toward the feminine at all. It was very common for women to be raped.

And the babies often ended up in orphanages, dying. It was a really hard existence for women which also intrigued me about this time.

Following the success of The Babadook, you have gone in a very different direction.

I’m very much driven by what makes me feel excited. I write it, I live with it for three years or slightly longer. I was offered a lot, and very good projects, and they’ve since been made… but, I didn’t feel me in them and it’s very important for me to be passionate.

It’s utterly harrowing to watch, at times. What was it like to film?

Heartbreaking. We cried a lot. Everyone, when we had a break, would go off and cry… Including the focus puller who said, “I’m not going be able to focus because I’m looking through tears.” But it’s mystifying to me, because you see so much violence in film, we’re sort of anesthetised to it. But in this, I think, when you really focus on just the human emotion, it really hit people hard and I’m pleased about that because I think violence toward women is an epidemic worldwide, and I wanted to wake people up to that. The damage that it causes, irreparable damage.

How did everyone cope mentally?

We had a trauma psychologist on set. A friend of mine. Aisling [Franciosi] was passionate about portraying the damage properly and the relationship between Aisling and Sam’s [Claflin] characters needed to be true. It is a particular hold that someone has over another person when they’re abusing them in that way.

These films can get called, “Rape revenge”, and this is not what I call that at all…

No. Rape revenge films, without naming names, I think that they don’t dig very deep. And they’re entertainment, they reinforce what I feel like are false beliefs about rape and violence and I don’t think are very helpful. I think they can be irresponsible. I did want to tell a story about a revenge, but the real cost of revenge. And revenge, once played out, is infinitely more traumatising than the event itself. It just adds pain and misery upon pain upon pain. So, that was the point.

The Nightingale is in cinemas August 29, 2019

Read our review of The Nightingale here and here

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