restoring hope: reviewing cultivated

 

by Miller Keys and Eilish Jackson

 

Showcasing what it takes to create a circular economy within the furniture industry, Cultivated is a captivating exhibition that restores hope to its visitors. Located in Cult Design’s Melbourne showroom, the exhibition displays a number of restored pieces, as well as items from local designers, and a short film exposing the wasteful practices that drive the manufacturing industry.

As part of Melbourne’s Design Week 2021, Cultivated is true to this year’s theme: ‘Design the world you want’, and the three pillars that uphold this: Care, Community, and Climate. From the moment one enters the exhibition, you get a sense of the true appreciation the Cult team have for their products, those who design them and those who create them.

Cult’s showroom creates the ideal backdrop for the exhibition. Located on Melbourne’s iconic Elizabeth street, the building features original brick walls and large glass windows. Every detail of the building’s interior has been meticulously designed, from stair railings to the curtains, which only adds to the experience and reinforces the notion that good design must be appreciated and cared for.

The 1955 Series 7 Chair designed by Arne Jacobsen is an integral element of Cult’s circular design process. At the beginning of the exhibition, the chair is displayed in various stages of its life cycle. The resurrection by the Cultivated  studio, including sanding, painting, and even upholstering to create something seemingly new is shown, while explaining the process on banners hanging behind them. Importantly, these chairs were not just made for the exhibition: each chair was acquired by the Cultivated initiative after a long life in service from many locations throughout Australia. Several have found new homes for continued service post-cultivation.

The exhibition’s layout invites visitors to walk through each step taken to restore pieces of furniture. Guests view the before and after of a few classic items, before settling in on a quintessential Series 7 chair for a short film featuring several Australian designers and creators. They speak of their experiences with waste in the industry and how they are working to change it. Although the film leaves very few questions unanswered, the Cult staff are eager to inform and interact with their visitors and they are evidently proud of the work they have done to create change in such a conservative area.

Cult brand manager, Joshua Ellis, was especially excited to explain how many of the fabrics are made from the same material as plastic bottles, polyester, and was proud to announce that they have partnered with a textile factory being built on the Australia’s Gold Coast, which intends to use both recycled textiles and plastic bottles to create new upholstery materials. Ellis explains the recycling process and how the materials might be used, which certainly gives a greater understanding and appreciation of the work that goes into creating each piece upon visiting the showroom. What stood out about this, however, was that the factory will not be opened for another 12 to 24 months and Cult have already started saving fabrics to send to them, which testifies to the fact that this project is not just a concept or scraps of hope for a better world – these people are making it happen.

After visiting the ground floor, visitors are encouraged to make their way through two levels of showrooms, which display only the best of furniture design (along with the biggest of price tags). While these products are a showcase for grand design of sustainable products, they also demonstrate that ideas like Cultivated don’t come cheap. Many of the products cost well into the thousands and sometimes even tens-of-thousands of dollars, which clearly isn’t within the average home decorator’s budget. This highlights that although Cult is doing important work, until more “wallet friendly” businesses start implementing similar processes, people are not likely to jump on this bandwagon too casually. After visiting Cultivated, it is difficult to see how these processes could be made cheaper before becoming mainstream, and even then, this runs the risk of devaluing the exceptional craftsmanship involved. This is information that was omitted from the exhibition, as Cult’s demographic are very clearly people with large wallets and a strong appreciation for good design. It will take some time to overcome this issue, and that is time that is simply unavailable.

The final stop is the third floor which has been arranged into a studio apartment. Complete with a kitchen and bathroom, the room has been created using only items from Cult’s Nau collection. The apartment is an exciting look into the future of Australian residential spaces, utilising furnishings which are not only Australian designed and made with the best materials, but are designed for longevity, styled to individual taste, and can be repaired many a time so as not to contribute to landfill. Although beautifully arranged and a dream for those with a keen eye for design, this only raised more questions about how it could be made available to those who do not have the money to spend in these situations.

Not only does Cultivated showcase the ways in which furniture and lighting can be restored for longevity, it also invites people to discover new, more environmentally sustainable material options and how these new materials can be used across multiple settings. It is incredibly important to showcase the hard work of people like those at Cult, who are finding innovative ways to change the way people think about  products, while simultaneously taking action in regards to sustainability practices. Although some might see the challenges that arise out of this new way of doing, the exhibition answers more questions than it raises. Cultivated is for both novices and experts alike, who will walk away with a renewed sense of hope for the world.

 

Photo by Miller Keys and Eilish Jackson

fungi furniture: reviewing studio flek

 

By Ben Wood

Waste is one of the most significant challenges of our time. Australia produces approximately 540kg of household waste per person, per year. Melbourne alone can fill the Eureka Tower 50 times annually. Although some of this material is recycled, the vast majority is stockpiled in warehouses where it remains unsorted and continues to grow.

Fortunately, design is an industry that flourishes when presented with a challenge. A single material has the power to capture the imagination of a designer and inspire them to develop new, innovative products. Recently, the design scene has embraced the challenge of repurposing various forms of waste generated from daily life and business. We have seen the likes of iron residue and algae repurposed into striking new products for consumers to enjoy. The industry is on a mission to turn our waste into something of value, and challenge our current perception of the life cycle of a product.

For this year’s Melbourne Design Week, Brickworks Showroom teamed up with the Gold Coast creative studio, Studio Flek, to produce an exhibition of biodegradable, home-grown furniture. The founder and head designer at Studio Flek, Chris Miller, partnered with Balter Brewing Co. on the Gold Coast to develop their latest range of bar stools. Not, however, from the traditional materials you might expect. Chris and his team are repurposing the beer hops that remain after the brewing process to grow bar stools, using mushroom spores as a binding agent. In an almost poetic cycle, Chris is creating bar stools that are made from beer themselves, and will hopefully seat visitors in the Balter Brewery one day.

According to Chris, who I was lucky enough to speak to on the opening night of the exhibition, the bar stools will be entirely compostable. Spent hops and mash grain are bound together by mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to create a composite material that is 100% biodegradable. Previous testing has found that mycelium has a compressive strength greater than standard brick, whilst maintaining a light and spongy texture, similar to that of high-density foam. In addition to these incredible qualities, the mycelium is also cheap to create, fire-proof, and sound-proof. When I asked whether he believed it was commercially viable, Chris mentioned that there were already a number of studios in the United States and Europe finding commercial uses for the material, including acoustic panelling and insulation within buildings, or as a substitute for foam or plastic in packaging. Chris explained to me that there are a number of benefits of designing with materials perceived as waste. They are low cost, sometimes even negative, as businesses will pay you to take them off their hands. The potential properties are currently unknown and destined to shift and improve with new technology and production methods.

The need to design products with a considered, cyclical life cycle is incredibly important.

Chris also spoke about the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi as a key influence for his explorations, where imperfection and aging are embraced as natural parts of the life of a product. His stools are able to be broken down and used for a secondary purpose when their primary function has been fulfilled. While these ideas of cyclic design are not new, it has taken until now for them to be adopted into the mainstream consciousness.

Exhibitions like this one, supported by the NGV and Melbourne Design Week, play a huge role in integrating and normalising these ideas, into new designs and materials. Neurasthenic research shows that we perceive design and art differently if it is labelled and displayed in a gallery or show, as opposed to a store, or even a studio. The recognition from an external ‘trusted’ body alters our perception of a product’s validity, especially if the show is world renowned. A product is unconsciously assumed to be vetted and tested in order to have made it to the stage. This phenomenon has the power to lead individuals within the wider design community to take the leap of faith and invest in these emerging technologies, helping them to become more mainstream. When knowledge is shared, it becomes a tool for entire communities of designers and innovators to push the possibilities of an idea, technology or material.

I for one, am incredibly thankful that Melbourne Design Week chose the theme, ‘Design the world you want’. In a time where resources are precious, it is a holistic theme that asks a very pertinent question. Designers can no longer be seemingly thoughtless in their production and encouragement of a consumer-based society. My hope is that we can all play our part in shifting this narrative of waste towards a circular resource economy before it’s too late.

Photo by Ben Wood

remembering great melbourne tv dramas

 

By Yvonne Aoll

Over the years, Melbourne has proven its worth in salt when it comes to top-notch TV production. Much to the relish of millions of viewers nationwide, the ‘most liveable city,’ has given viewers Down Under superior, memorable TV dramas that were worth running home for.

Showcasing the best of Melbourne’s architecture, transportation, parks and beaches, these shows not only showed off Aussie lingo and local slang, but also the city’s famous vibrant culture.

So, looking for something delicious to binge-watch? Here are some great TV drama suggestions that were set and filmed in Melbourne:

  1. Winners & Losers 

Nominated for several Logie Awards, Winners and Losers was not only spectacular, but it was also enjoyable, memorable and relatable.

Created by Bevan Lee, the TV drama followed four best friends as they transformed from being high school losers to adult life winners. The show starred Melanie Vallejo, Melissa Bergland, Virginia Gay and Zoe Tuckwell-Smith as Sophie, Jenny, Frances and Bec, respectively.

The show’s writing, acting, directing, and producing was so skilful that it made it easy for viewers to get attached to the characters and story-lines. And what about those catchy soundtracks the show used on almost every episode…? They were so shazam-able.

Release Date: March 22, 2011

Seasons: 5 (2011-2016)

Genre: Comedy, Drama

 

  1. Offspring

Named Australia’s favourite drama of the decade, Offspring was a fun and flavourful TV comedy-drama that captivated audiences around the nation.

Airing on Channel 10 and later picked up by streaming giant Netflix, Offspring followed the life of a 30-something-year-old Melbourne obstetrician who was struggling to juggle the professional, romantic and (chaotic) family aspects of her life.

Asher Keddie, the star of the show, (and who was brilliantly cast as a co-star in Nicole Kidman’s now-airing, Nine Perfect Strangers miniseries) acted as the eccentric and endearing Nina Proudman. However, it wasn’t just Nina’s character that enthralled audiences, it was also her style that made fans go wild.

So many became taken with Nina’s Fitzroy home and her fashion sense, that there were even websites created for viewers to discuss Nina’s attire on the episode of the week. Where could they get those boots she had on, that scarf she wore, the jewellery they saw? It was an obsession, understandably so.

Keddie’s fellow cast members included, among others, Kat Stewart, Deborah Mailman, Mathew Le Nevez and Eddie Perfect as Billie, Cherie, Patrick and Mick.

Release Date: August 15, 2010

Seasons: 7 (2010-2017)

Genre: Comedy, Drama

 

  1. House Husbands

Setting a ratings record for Channel Nine, House Husbands was a unique, about-time, comedy-drama that depicted the lives of four men who were in charge of their households and families.

Starring Rhys Muldoon, Gary Sweet, Gyton Grantley and Firass Dirani, as Mark, Lewis, Kane, and Justin, the show took viewers through the challenges of modern-day fatherhood and highlighted the four stars’ efforts in trying to attain the often evasive work-life balance.

Included to make the show a much fuller experience to enjoy, were co-stars, Julia Morris, Natalie Saleeba, Anna McGahan & Edwina Royce as Gemma, Natalie, Lucy and Stella.  

Julia Morris­–one of Australia’s most famous comedians–impressively showed off her fine acting chops on the show. While Natalie Saleeba, with all that sass and flair she has in her, shone.

Whether you’re looking for a light-hearted drama to watch, a family-based show to binge or just some good fun Aussie TV to get into, this stellar Ellie Beaumont and Drew Proffitt production could be the one to go for.

Release Date: September 2, 2012

Seasons: 5 (2012-2017)

Genre: Drama

 

  1. Sisters

‘Why wasn’t it renewed? When is it coming back?’ If there’s a show that lovers of Australian TV drama want answers about, it’s Sisters.

An excellent ‘dramedy’ (part drama, part comedy), Channel 10’s Sisters focused on Julia, an only child who finds out that her father, a pioneering fertility doctor and Nobel Prize winner, used his own sperm for IVF treatments. The result? She may have hundreds of siblings out there somewhere. Everything unravels from this discovery before it’s established that Julia has two siblings, Roxy and Edie–as far as they know. The three sisters go on to navigate this new reality in their own messy yet interesting ways.

Controversial, extreme,  different, funny,  this MA15+ show was almost indescribably great. Starring Maria Angelico, Lucy Durack and Antonia Prebble as Julia, Roxy and Edie, the show left viewers wanting more, long after the weekly episodes had aired.

Created by Jonathan Gavin and Imogen Banks, Sisters ended up inspiring a US-based spin-off, Almost Family. 

But will Aussie fans ever see a Season 2 of Sisters? We can only hope.

Release Date: October 25, 2017

Seasons: 1 (2017- )

Genre: Comedy, Drama

 

Photo by Andres Ayrton from Pexels

the k-pop idols dismantling gender stereotypes

Art and writing by Belle Murphy

Accentuated through their songwriting, group dynamic and authentic approach to style, there’s something refreshing about BTS’ approach to masculinity and self-identity. This article explores a number of ways these much-loved Korean idols are dismantling gender stereotypes and redefining hegemonic beauty standards, and ushering in a liberating new wave of masculinity and gender neutrality. The concept of masculinity in the entertainment industry, is further examined in greater detail in my earlier article.

Perhaps most poignantly, a number of BTS’ songs throughout their discography are written using gender-neutral terminology, including ‘Singularity’, ‘Serendipity’ and ‘Spring Day’. BTS’ Kim Namjoon explains that this decision was made because he believes the feelings illuminated in the chart-topping single ‘Serendipity’, “transcend genders, cultures and barriers between people”. Fans also noticed the subtle, yet meaningful change of pronouns in BTS’ official remix of Jason Derulo and Jawish 685’s ‘Savage Love’ earlier this year, further conveying BTS’ message of inclusivity and acceptance of gender fluidity. In addition, BTS’ leader Kim Namjoon (also known as RM) made an impassioned speech at the United Nations Youth Strategy Conference in 2018, encouraging fans and the broader community to embrace their own individuality, “no matter where you’re from, your skin colour, gender identity: speak yourself”.

The group’s strong emotional bond with one another is undoubtedly one of their most endearing attributes. It is illustrated through their closeness, both emotionally and physically – whether they’re holding hands, hugging, earnestly complimenting each other for their achievements or consoling each other when they’re emotional during awards ceremonies and concerts. To add to this charming dynamic, two of the members, Jimin and Taehyung (V), fondly call each other “soul mates”, and co-wrote a song called ‘Friends’ celebrating their special bond. The band’s modelling of open displays of affection and expression of emotions, is incredibly important for society to see, and contributes to breaking down potential stigma.  In a recent interview with Esquire Magazine, Yoongi (known as Suga) expressed his perspective on the culture of defining masculinity by particular emotions and traits, confessing he is, “not fond of these expressions”. Continuing on, Yoongi explains, “many pretend to be okay, saying that they’re not ‘weak’, as if that [being emotional] would make you a weak person” and urges “society [to] be more understanding”. Beautifully expressed through the raw and nuanced lyrics on the self-produced eight-track record, BTS’ most recent album “BE” encapsulates the member’s inner dialogue, experiences with burnout and their mental health journey throughout the global pandemic. They have never shied away from conversations about mental health – further elaborated on in their films, which follow the Korean idols’ emotional journeys throughout each of their world tours.

BTS’ Jimin is widely admired for his progressive fashion ensembles, including his appreciation for silk scarves, striking eyeshadow looks, as well as his statement “unisex uniform” denim-boilersuit from Nohant. The Korean idol also regularly incorporates clothing items categorised as from “women’s collections” into his personal style. Jimin’s liberating character has also been recognised by Korean florist, Kim Isaac, who made a guest appearance in a BTS ‘Run’ episode. Hosting a floral-arranging workshop, he acknowledges that, “it’s rare for a man to be so delicate [like Jimin]”.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, after being featured on their 2019 Best Dressed List, Jungkook famously said that he considers great style to be “wearing anything you like, regardless of gender”. This sentiment is reflected in his consciously curated wardrobe, incorporating a range of lesser-known gender-neutral and unisex clothing labels. For instance, earlier this year Jungkook wore a casual outfit from a brand called A NOTHING, on his birthday Vlive (a popular communication channel for Korean idols and their fans) and has since made multiple public appearances sporting the clothing line. Prior to this, the genderless designer brand took two years to establish 1,000 followers on social media. They’ve since reached 17,800 followers on Instagram, which is a testament to the economic influence and power of the K-pop phenomenon.

BTS are renowned for raising a brand’s public profile, leading to brands instantly selling out of stock and, in some cases, sites crashing due to the overwhelming demand created through their endorsement. This sentiment was exemplified when photos of BTS’ Suga went viral on Twitter, after he was spotted wearing pro-LGBTQ sneakers – part of the limited-edition Vans collection celebrating New York’s diversity and different forms of love.

It is clear that the Korean idols are mindful of their incredible influence in shaping public opinions and global gender-norms. It is an influence BTS endeavour to use as a positive vehicle for change, reflected in their touching lyrics, inspirational speeches and expressive personal styles.

the nightingale: a revision for the frontier film

Author: Jasper Caverly 

CW:  Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people
*Spoilers*

A great majority of the Australian genre-film canon is indebted to movements conceived by filmmakers in the international realm of cinema, leading to filmic delays in topical popularity, mimicry, and global otherness. In the contemporary genre-market, then, societal displays of suppression may in fact be Australia’s greatest ally on the world stage, manifested through a strong sense of pertinence, revision and uniqueness – a vision ratified by the Australian horror film I wrote about last week: Jennifer Kent’s film, The Nightingale (2018).

Today, I would like to discuss The Nightingale’s status as a genre film, and the way it is loosely bound to the Western canon. Ultimately, the film functions less as a traditional Western and more as a reimagination of the American frontier film, placed within the context of a factually scrutinized, unapologetic retelling of British settlement in Australia. The impact of this subversion on audiences, which I will come back to later, underscores the importance of escaping – or at least twisting – traditional conventions when seeking to tell stories through cinema, and for spectators, looking beyond the surface level of a genre film.

My interpretation of The Nightingale generic underpinnings is strongly validated through representations of colonialism and implications of subversive imagery. As a Western, Kent’s film is motivated by the adherence to a set of generic tendencies proposed by Douglas Pye: plot, structural features, character, time and space, iconography and themes (2012, p. 241-242). The Nightingale follows a young heroine/hero partnership as they pursue a villain-led travelling party across the untamed landscape of the Australian bush – the heroine seeking to enact revenge upon her rapist through rudimentary justice. For those of us familiar with the genre, this purpose-bound struggle against a body of evil across an arduous journey recalls genre tropes of the 20th century Western. Replace the lead characters with cowboys, the villains with American Indians, the Tasmanian bush with a Nevada plain – and you have a frontier film.

While the film’s narrative conventions and iconography adhere to the Western mode, Kent tackles the ideological challenges built up by this genre by opting for a revisionist, self-critical approach to the western. (Gallagher, 2012, p. 299). As Bazin & Gray write, “…[the revisionist western] looks for some additional interest to justify its existence – an aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political…quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it.” (2005, p. 151). The generic qualities of The Nightingale, which aim to subvert or challenge colonial frontierism, are further illustrated through explicit instances of sexual assault and modal hybridity in presentations of ‘the uncanny’.

Within the film, there are three sequences where women – one colonial servant and one imprisoned Indigenous women – are forced into acts of sexual violence at the hands of imperial soldiers. These scenes were criticised by festival-goers and media personnel during the film’s initial release, but nonetheless, it is vital to consider these identities and their symbolic implications within the Western mode.

Let’s first consider the function of the soldier in the western film: they are frequently represented as heroes who seek to overcome ‘savagery’, protect those in need, and bring peace to the frontier. In The Nightingale, however, these ‘heroes’ are demythologised by their own acts of savagery – through idiocracy, insobriety, racism, passivity to militaristic rank and a general disregard for others’ quality of life. They personify historic colonial violence; the part of Australia’s national conscience consistently willing to be ignored (Harman, 2020 p. 12). If the soldiers become villains for the sake of being revisionist, then, do the ‘others’ become the heroes? While masculine characters and narratives have paved the Western’s history, women often exist in these worlds as a byproduct of plot and structural features – as disposable, often dead, and existing purely to serve a function.

Now consider Clare, a young Irish convict and mother, who traverses the rugged landscape of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ to enact revenge upon her oppressor. She is self-liberated, determined and acts upon her suffering. In a way, she protects others and brings peace through justified violence (to borrow from the rhetoric of the Western canon). With Clare at the centre of the narrative, Kent not only emphasises female agency but the ‘rape-revenge’ arc too, interrogating the valorisation of ‘wild colonial boys’ and masculine assertions of power (Johnson, 2020 p. 4).  The atrocities she endures are of contextual relevance to the cultural climate, pertinent to colonial and contemporary history, and as necessary as the conversations that have become a product of The Nightingale’s viewership.

This is the film’s greatest subversion of the western canon; a complete revision of the genre’s cinematic intent and its ‘afterwardness’ felt by viewers post-viewing. It is here the film justifies its existence within the genre and is granted the definition of ‘mannerist’. Kent’s deeply subversive motive in writing multiple acts of sexual violence into a script and showing them on-screen, reminds the audience that this subject matter exists beyond the fictional space, confronting us twofold and trapping us within an unavoidable truth.

While this method of delivery lacks subtlety and may not be wholly necessary in achieving realism, Kent’s transparency is undeniably effective for the audience.  In The Nightingale, sexual violence creates a motivation for the heroine, who is cunning and capable and no longer an accessory to narrative and to man. For the audience, this is horrifying to watch, eliciting a confrontation that defies expectations of the Western mode. For some of us, Kent’s subversion may evoke strong emotion, forcing us to momentarily confront fears, trauma or remorse. For others, it may serve a more powerful function, by shifting or possibly rewriting thinking/behavioural patterns in a manner similar to CBT treatment (APA Div. 12, 2017).

As I stated in last week’s essay, The Nightingale is a film best understood within the context of Australia’s colonial history and the western’s evolution in contemporary cinema. This is not a coy film playing with the tensions of familiarity. Instead, Kent’s sinister, fearful, and distorted view of the world nominates terror as its reigning power, rather than beauty, with all expectations subverted and very few gratified. As writer and director, Kent silently assesses the audience’s familiarity with narrative expectations of the Western and subverts them through her use of challenging imagery and content in a context that while safely digestible, is by no means easy to stomach.

The Nightingale exists in a web of influence, and its determination as a Western is limited by this very distinction. It does, however, solidify the surprising ways that genre films can reveal their deeper implications – as long as we’re willing to look closer, past the surface level, and examine what their semiotic language is really telling us.

The Nightingale asks us not to shy away from considering where learned narrative expectations come from or whether they uphold antiquated rhetoric. Ultimately, the film reminds us that storytellers can be truthtellers too – and should strive to be. After all, if Australia’s colonial history is built on blood and violence, and its national conscience is guilty of this past, then shouldn’t our national cinema aim to challenge these anxieties by confronting them head on?

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email, at caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header photo by Matt Nettheim

References (APA):
American Psychological Association Division 12 (2017, July). What is cognitive behavioral therapy? Society of Clinical Psychology, retrieved from <https://www.div12.org/sites/default/files/WhatIsCognitiveBehaviorTherapy.pdf>

Bazin, A., & Gray, H. (2005). What is cinema? volume ii: Volume ii. University of California Press.

Gallagher, T. (2012). Shoot-Out at the genre corral: Problems in the “evolution” of the western. In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Johnson, T. (2020). Hierarchies of horror: The violent refrains of jennifer kent’s the nightingale, Metro Magazine.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Pye, D. (2012). The western (genre and movies). In B. K. Grant (Eds.), Film genre reader iv (pp. 239-254). University of Texas Press.

instances of conflict and suggestions of solidarity in the nightingale

Author: Jasper Caverly

CW: Sexual assault, violence against Aboriginal people

This essay contains spoilers for The Nightingale (2018)

Subversive media has the ability to undermine dominant rhetoric, hold the arms of societal power to account, and ultimately spark the idea of social change . Cinema’s history, especially, tends to mirror a nation’s mentality; encapsulating the audience’s collective desires, or seeking to challenge them. Films and their inhabitants, then, often reflect a nation’s subconscious, acting as  an inadvertent expression of culture, values and ideology.

For the purpose of this essay, I am particularly concerned with the characterisation in Jennifer Kent’s Australian psychological thriller The Nightingale (2018) . If we delve deep into Kent’s film, we can begin to understand how cinema can simultaneously represent Australian national archetypes and reflect contemporary societal concerns, while challenging homogenous perspectives of identity.

The Nightingale is set in the colonial frontier of Tasmania, 1825, where British colonists and Indigenous peoples fought over custodianship during the genocidal Black War. Kent’s film uses  this context as a backdrop to query identity (and thus power) in the colonial past, consequently providing a commentary on our ‘post-colonial’ present.  Hierarchies of class, race, and gender are embodied in the film as persons of the soldiery, conviction, settlement and indigeneity (Harman, 2020 p. 2).

As such, I would like to select two distinctions of characterisation for further discussion within this essay: women (gender) and Aboriginal peoples (race). In keeping with the historical context of The Nightingale, both are shown to exist in opposition to British rule. Although The Nightingale is arguably led by a female protagonist, the world depicted in the film is certainly reigned by the hand of white men.  In its earliest years as a colony of the British Empire, Australia was dictated by the monarchy, militarist power and norms of patriarchy.

This is reflected strongly and often cruelly in The Nightingale. Protagonist Clare, an Irish convict and mother, is instantly shown to be at the mercy of soldiery and forced into acts of physical labour. Lieutenant Hawkins, who has the ability to grant her freedom, is unwilling to write her a letter of recommendation as he, being of high-ranking social power, would no longer be protected by law which allows him ownership of her. Hawkins is shown exploiting this power multiple times as he rapes her without consequence, then murders her husband and baby.

Impelled by these atrocities, Clare undergoes a visible transformation that likens her to a ‘Paddy’ – an archetype often represented in conflict to or as a fracture of British identity. McLoone terms the ‘Paddy’ as being “…[a] simian primitive – a violent and irrational character who came to represent the Irish as a whole.” (2001, p. 209). This transformation is important, as it places Clare in direct opposition to British military rule, not only by nationality and gender, but nature and motive. Although she is a colonist herself, Clare becomes the narrative instigator, whose purpose is abject to the other colonists. While she desires freedom from her life of conviction, the colonists seek to manifest the land unto the monarch’s will. There is a dichotomy of aspirations here, and on the part of the audience, a psychological attraction to the disadvantaged.

As spectators, we then compel Clare to exceed the contextual expectations of the world she inhabits and fulfil her need for retribution in the form of violent justice. The efficacy of Clare’s emblematic defiance is best described by Curthoys, who writes, “Through contested allegorical images of the convict woman, national history is made and remade in moral, economic, and cultural terms, implying the eternally recurrent question: Is Australian history a cause for shame or pride?” (2003, p. 81).

Another distinction of identity explored in The Nightingale is the relationship between Indigenous and colonising Australians. Before I unpack this relationship, however, it is essential to underscore the notion that Australian films operate within the context of documented genocide, beginning in the 18th century, whereby the custodians of the land have been (and are being) dispossessed by British settlers. Public interest, factual scrutiny and exploration of the Indigenous/settler relationship in media demonstrates that the ideation of ‘Australianness’ and what it means ‘to be Australian’ are salient, if not central, to a national sense of identity  (Walter, 2012 p. 15).

In Kent’s film, ‘Billy’ (whose name is actually Mangana), is a Letteremairrener man who has experienced white assimilation and slavery and is therefore able to speak english (Screen Australia, 2018). Billy is employed to help Clare pursue Hawkins across the unconquered bush of ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, a task which would be impossible to navigate without navigation and a means of surviving off of the land – knowledge Billy has collected through his upbringing. What Billy represents is a recurring archetype of Indigenous characters in Australian cinema: ‘the tracker’.

The tracker entered Australian mythology (and cinema) as an Aboriginal with uncanny powers of observation, integral to nation-building, but one who is mostly a voiceless participant in dialogue between coloniser and pre/colonised spaces (Langton, 2006). However, Billy’s character in The Nightingale is portrayed with agency, rendering him exempt from pre-established stereotypes. He is written to be resourceful, intelligent and compassionate, even in the face of cultural extermination. Essentially, Billy embodies Indigenous oppression within the narrative and its historic context, by acting as a voice for voiceless participants – one that serves to celebrate Aboriginality, rather than exploiting it.

The creation of Billy’s character was closely supervised by Jim Everett, from the plangermairreenner (sic) clan of the Ben Lomond people, who acted as a cultural consultant and associate producer on the film. This level of cultural consultation was crucial for the production team to create a character who effectively embodied the dispossession, violence and enslavement endured by Indigenous Tasmanians. Arrow & Findlay write, “The film is also replete with images and evidence of Indigenous survival and resistance…Billy’s final line in the film – ‘I’m still here’ – is a defiant declaration of survival in the face of unbreakable sadness. Here Billy speaks from the past to the audience in the present.” (2020, p. 3).

Today, Australia is made up of a broad, cosmopolitan population; the result of 250 years of foreign settlement and globalisation. Despite the country’s apparent embrace of multiculturalism, the typified Australian identity remains the masculine, hard-working, fair-go bloke from the outback (or interchangeably, the frontier). Attitudes of nationalism determine that the ‘average’ Australian speaks english, respects political and judicial systems, and is garnered by a cognitive sense of ‘feeling’ that they belong here (Healey, 2016 p. 27). It is through these aspects that Australia’s colonial past remains victorious, supported by the book-keeping of national history and educational curriculums – a systemic hegemony granting ignorance to the lasting effects of colonialism and quelling settlement anxieties.

The Nightingale is ultimately concerned with the unification of minority groups and allyship in the face of adversity – solidarity in a disharmonious social climate . It seeks to hold ruling powers accountable for their past and present by disrupting the possibility of an inequitable future. It opposes notions of supremacy by representing two of the many identities that have been historically discriminated against, disadvantaged and disenfranchised by hierarchical malice; a malevolence decided on the basis of gender, race and class.

The way Kent’s film engages with characterisation should be seen allegorically; as retaining social pertinence in contemporary dialogue, and challenging the ‘victory’ of settlement by subverting the imperial/empirical narrative. Even then, Clare’s victory feels as though it’s worth more than Billy’s. In fact, neither character is genuinely victorious by film’s end, indicating that The Nightingale is closer to a social study of Australia’s sustained, problematic attitudes, rather than a historic one.

Jasper Caverly can be contacted via email: caverlyjasper@gmail.com

Header image courtesy of X-Press Magazine

REFERENCES

Arrow, M & Findlay, J. (2020). A critical introduction to the nightingale: Gender, race and troubled histories on screen,Studies in Australasian Cinema.

Curthoys, A. (1999). Expulsion, exodus and exile in white australian historical mythology, Journal of Australian Studies, 23(61), 1-19.

Harman, K. E. (2020) Uncanny parallels: Jennifer kent’s the nightingale, violence and the vandemonian past, Studies in Australiasian Cienma, (In Press).

Healey, J. (2016). Multiculturalism and australian identity. The Spinney Press.

Kent, J. (Director). (2018). The nightingale [Film]. Causeway Films.

Langton, M. (2006). Out from the shadows: Marcia langton considers the significance and traces the development of the aboriginal tracker figure in australian film, Meajin, (65)1.

McLoone, M. (2001). Political violence and the myth of atavism. In J. D. Slocum (Eds.), Terrorism, media, liberation (pp. 209-231). Rutgers University Press.

Screen Australia, (2018, September 12). The nightingale wins two awards at venice film festival, Screen Australia. <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2018/09-12-the-nightingale-wins-two-awards-at-venice>

Walter, M. (2012). Keeping our distance: Non-indegenous/aboriginal relations in australian society. In J. Pietsch & H. Aarons (Eds.), Australia: Identity, fear and governance in the 21st century. ANU Press.