An Unflinching Look at Colonialism: ‘Birds of Passage’ and ‘The Nightingale’

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the all-female team of film critics at FF2 Media were assigned to write about their favorite female artists – and where to watch their work. While Birds of Passage and The Nightingale take place in different settings and explore different subject matter, both films (released in 2018) feature strong, complex female leads and offer different renderings of what colonialism looked like. 

While sequestered in quarantine, you can rent both Birds of Passage and The Nightingale on Amazon Prime. Additionally, The Nightingale can be found on Hulu. 

BIRDS OF PASSAGE

Though classifiable as a drug crime epic, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s film paints a changing portrait of not only a family, but people. Under the unflinching violence, murder, and piles of marijuana money, lies the ethnography of the indigenous Wayuu tribe.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE

In the Guajira peninsula in the early ‘60s, “Rapayet” (José Acosta) seeks family but finds himself in the tangle of illegal marijuana money. Read our full review HERE.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Though vengeance drives Jennifer Kent’s horror film, it is at once tempered with and amplified by themes of fear, hopelessness, and a realization that revenge cannot bring back what has been lost. 

In 1825 Tasmania, amidst the Black War (a period of violent conflict between British colonists and Aboriginals), “Clare” (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict indentured to the cruel British “Lieutenant Hawkins” (Sam Claflin). Though her seven-year sentence is up, Hawkins refuses to grant her a ticket of leave to be with her husband and baby. Viewing her as his property, Hawkins sexually abuses Clare in a horrific scene of physical violence. He takes away her family and her dignity. Filled with rage, Clare hires an Aboriginal guide, “Billy” (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her through the Tasmanian “bush” while she tracks down Hawkins and his men, who are headed for Launceston in pursuit of a promotion. Read our full review HERE.

THE NIGHTINGALE

STRONG, COMPLEX FEMALE LEADS

Though Rapayet is the hero of Birds of Passage, the family’s matriarch Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez) is it’s heart as well as spiritual compass. Here we see an indigenous woman – a figure that is usually depicted as a defenseless victim –- hold both power and influence in the personal politics of her clan. While she makes mistakes, she alone reserves the right to make them; she must assume some responsibility for allowing corruption to spread and ensnare her family. She stands in stark contrast to the only Aboriginal woman we see in The Nightingale, who falls into the clutches of Hawkins one night before getting raped and murdered. 

Far from perfect, Clare is racist, scathingly so, towards the beginning, calling Billy “boy” and even thinking that he is a cannibal. But there lies strength in change, and Clare changes, drastically. By the end of the film, her rage and determination has turned to delirium, then to an openness towards Billy, a growing awareness of things other than her revenge. In the final scene on the beach, there is a letting go of sorts and an unspoken understanding between her and Billy of their shared pain.

BIRDS OF PASSAGE

INDIGENOUS REPRESENTATION

Birds of Passage grants the audience access into a society threatened by the modern world. It puts indigenous actors, languages, and culture at its center, featuring little Spanish. So often we think of colonialism as an external force: guerilla warfare between colonists and natives, schools built to Christianize and civilize the “savage,” designated reservations that become smaller and smaller. Colonialism might come from the outside, but once it has taken root, it spreads wholly. The tragedy of Rapayet and the Wayuu lies in the ways in which their own choices and actions spell their total demise. 

They allow the greed of enterprise to turn their heads until all they can think of is power and wealth. Foreign business and ideals have compelled them to rip apart the walls and beams of tradition, religion, and culture until their figurative house ultimately comes crashing down. A coldness pervades the halls of their new mansion as they step further away from the culture that raised them. Yet in this coldness, during the night, a camera pans from an empty king-sized bed to a hammock hanging in the corner of the room. There sleep Rapayet and his wife, curled up, clinging to the comfort of their old ways before they ultimately become consumed.

Just as Birds of Paradise features dialogue in the Wayuu language, The Nightingale, thanks to Kent’s collaboration with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, features Palawa Kani, a dialect reconstructed from dying Tasmanian languages. The Nightingale depicts the more typical narrative of a displaced people. At the time period of the film, much of the Tasmanian aboriginal population has already been wiped out or forced into hiding. The colonists use few Aboriginal men as guides only. When we meet Billy, he no longer cares much about anything because he has already lost everything. And while this story is principally Clare’s, it gradually shines a brighter light on Billy’s. 

We should not ignore Clare’s blatant racism towards Billy or excuse it, but seeing how their relationship develops is truly fascinating. Both have lost a great deal under colonialism’s heel, but by the film’s end, the two seem to stand on equal ground. We must remember, however, that in the eyes of society, Clare will return to a state of higher power than Billy ever will. That is the difference between their situations. 

THE NIGHTINGALE

MUSIC’S ROLE

Divided into five “jayeechi” – traditional songs of the Wayuu which transmit its history, Birds of Paradise mirrors the structure of an epic Greek tragedy. A song denotes the beginning of each chapter, telling the story in the traditional Wayuu manner, from the Wayuu perspective. The narrator opens the film with the line “I have sung to bid the dead farewell and to remember the wars.” Just like the Greek epic’s chorus begins its story with a song of its end, so too does this jayeechi inform us of the catastrophe to come.

The Nightingale’s music contributes less to the story’s structure and more to the feelings Kent wishes to evoke. Clare sings in Gaelic to herself, reminding us that she does not identify with the English who abuse her. For Hawkins and his soldiers, she sings in English. She is their nightingale and little else. Such beautiful melodies juxtaposed with the raw violence of the film prove unsettling. Billy’s own singing sounds like a wail, as if he were crying out for the loss of his people. Though both are treated as less than by their abusers, their song reminds us of their humanity. 

Both Birds of Passage and The Nightingale push us out of our comfort zones, not shying away from the very real pain and violence of each film’s story. Women do not stand idly; they are active agents in their own stories.

Consider watching either or both films and support the women behind the art. 

© Roza Melkumyan (3/217/20) FF2 Media

BIRDS OF PASSAGE

Featured photo: The Nightingale (Credit: Matt Nettheim); Birds of Passage (Credit: The Orchard)

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