Only five days before Soda_Jerk’s much anticipated TERROR NULLIUS premiered at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in March, the Ian Potter Foundation pulled their support because the work was deemed “un-Australian,” later stating publicly that it was “a very controversial work of art.” Reactions were prompt and passionate: academic and president of the Melbourne Cinémathèque Eloise Ross tweeted that it was “hard to fathom that the IPF would commission a Soda_Jerk film and not expect something politically challenging,” while for Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso, “calling it Unaustralian means equating various strands of radical, critical thought about gender, race and class in this country as Unaustralian. This is not a link we ever want to make.”
In a Facebook statement responding to the IPF’s position, Soda_Jerk were more explicit about what was at stake: “We’ve long felt that perhaps the most insidious form of censorship is not when it’s overt but rather the kinds of immaterial cultural erasures that result from self-censorship. In this regard, our greatest fear over the Ian Potter’s decision is that it will have a chilling effect on what Australian artists might dare to imagine and produce, in and for the future.” Whether there was one particular aspect of TERROR NULLIUS that sparked the ire of the IPF or it was an accumulation of perceived affronts, either way it’s tantalising to speculate what triggered such a catastrophic decision in terms of sheer brand optics alone.
As Di Rosso put it elsewhere, “it was a bizarre dummy spit for a major philanthropic organisation, not to mention a self-inflicted PR wound.” What pushed the IPF over the edge we can only guess: it’s 2018 and depicting Skippy the Bush Kangaroo as an intersectional feminist risks being interpreted as un-Australian. It’s 2018 and suggesting that the “Man from Snowy River” might be attracted to other men risks being interpreted as un-Australian. It’s 2018 and playing the national anthem on a kazoo risks being interpreted as un-Australian.
The funding relationship began positively enough. In 2016, the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission as part of their broader decade-long initiative to support new works by mid-career artists awarded the two-person art collective of Dan and Dominique Angeloro a $100,000 grant to create the project. The very terms used to justify IPF’s abandonment of the project so close to its premiere were themselves revealing: so culturally and ideologically loaded is the term “un-Australian” that the only real hope was that surely it was a part of a clever joke or an adroit marketing campaign.
The alternative was inconceivable: it is frankly incomprehensible that deploying a term so closely aligned with Prime Minister John Howard’s signature blend of myopic xenophobia could be used in any seriousness in relation to a work whose very title alone converts the concept of terra nullius – the erroneous and deeply offensive claim upon which the Australian constitution is based that assumes the country was uninhabited at the time of European settlement from 1788 onwards – into a literal site of horror.
But if it was a joke the punchline never came. In its place was the staggering realisation that not only was the IPF just out of touch, but – even more concerning – so severe was its disconnection to the cultural Zeitgeist that it didn’t click that accusations like “controversial” and “un-Australian” would typify the exact kind of toxic colonial boys club mentality that TERROR NULLIUS itself so powerfully critiques. As Soda_Jerk noted in in their Facebook statement, “we guess we can thank them for, providing the film with a perfect tagline to carry for the rest of its life.” TERROR NULLIUS is all about the “un” – an undoing, an untethering, and – as they so succinctly note in the brief blurb for the work on their website – “an un-writing of Australian national mythology.”
While the origins of the term “un-Australian” stem back to the nineteenth century, it was through Howard’s conservative rhetoric that it became explicitly politicised and bestowed with its contemporary political meaning, often linked to that unique brand of casual white Australian racism that accounts for the broad public disinterest in the horrendous abuses faced by asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. Yet so hackneyed has “un-Australian” become in the ideological lexicon over the past thirty years that as a rhetorical mode of attack its effect has all but collapsed into over-signified impotence.
As Catriona Elder has noted, the haphazard manner with which the term has been utilised by both sides of politics has garnered it a range of complex meanings beyond its originally intended status as an insult: “For some people being labelled un-Australian by their political rivals is a badge of honour. Others use the term with irony and wit ... But the term is often used both as an insult and a disciplining expression and it can have real and alienating implications, as was demonstrated at Cronulla Beach.”
The association of the term “un-Australian” with TERROR NULLIUS is further complicated because the film is precisely about the myth-making capacities of language – be it verbal or the that of cinema itself – and how this relates to power, voice, and the construction of popular memory. TERROR NULLIUS is not a simplistic rejection of “Australia” altogether, but rather it engagingly remixes its way towards a complex de-Australianising of a particularly dominant national mythology. Through the creative possibilities the sample movie affords, Soda_Jerk send Australian film history crashing to the floor, picking up the pieces and rebuilding them into a powerful iconographic palette custom-made to question the exact brand of antiquated white masculine power that the IPF have so inadvertently and clumsily personified.
TERROR NULLIUS is a fearless, fun, and determined call to arms to rally against a regressive status quo. While Soda_Jerk’s fixation with Australian gothic and its intersection with national mythology was visible in 2006’s Picnic at Wolf Creek short, this earlier blueprint is here expanded to a virtual manifesto. The film is introduced through voiceover by Yolngu actor David Gulpilil, taken from Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) in an act of radical appropriation, even before its opening credits TERROR NULLIUS establishes its terms of engagement with an Indigenous Australian man stating explicitly “it's not your story ... it's my story.”
The subjectivity of the fim shifts across the film’s cut-and-paste textural and textual hodgepodge in its conscious configuration of a space for iconic Australian Others – women, immigrants and refugees, people of colour, and those who self-define across LQBTI+ identities – to speak through the archive in ways beyond how Australian film history has traditionally allowed them to. But as Soda_Jerk noted in a recent interview, they actively consulted with Indigenous Australians and other minorities who have experienced discrimination or potential lack of understanding to avoid having their intentions backfire due to their own assumptions. TERROR NULLIUS does not speak for or over others, but – as typified by this recycling of David Gulpilil’s opening voiceover from Ten Canoes – it reconfigures and repositions those voices.
As the film’s title TERROR NULLIUS suggests, the displacement and mistreatment of Indigenous Australians is a core fascination across the film. David Gulpilil’s narration appears over the desolate, isolated landscape of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), smoothly seguing to a scene set in a similar looking environment from Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout released that same year, where the film’s two child-protagonists (played by Jenny Agutter and Roeg’s son, Luc) have a picnic with their father. Holding a portable transistor radio in the car, Soda_Jerk cleverly superimpose audio from Gough Whitlam’s famous post-dismissal speech from 1975 over the top to imply it is that which creates the sombre mood.
But the politics of the children is rapidly updated when Roeg Jr. is through the magic of technology shown to graffiti an Aboriginal flag with a yellow anarchy symbol at its centre on the side of his father’s black Volkswagen. This is a love letter across time and space to Archie Moore’s Aboriginal Anarchy (2012), one of the Kamilaroi artist’s series of ten flags that in his own words “substitute ... the yellow sun for other symbols to denote political alignments, sexual orientation, religious affiliation etc.” which thereby “questions the Aboriginal Flag as a pan-flag, a symbol that all Aboriginal people can feel represented by.”
As the child-protagonists from Walkabout wander deeper into the outback, TERROR NULLIUS grants them surprising ideological allies when the bus from Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) appears. British actor Terence Stamp’s trans woman Bernadette Bassenger sits and quietly listens to Josh Thomas’s protagonist from the TV show Please Like Me characteristically stumble through an outline of the injustices faced by Indigenous Australians, following which Bernadette declares: “Jesus. What are we going to do?”. Walking determinedly into the unknown, she leaves the bus and begins the film’s journey towards answering precisely this question.
On a basic structural level, this moment effectively bookends TERROR NULLIUS; the answer, at its most simple, begins with acceptance and acknowledgement. This is demonstrated by Anthony LaPaglia’s Detective Leon Zat from Lantana (Dir. Ray Lawrence, 2001) weeping in the car not at a recording of his wife’s therapy session, but at a list of the atrocities enacted against Indigenous Australians he hears on a tape given to him by Skippy. But the journey towards this moment is dense, fun, angry, chaotic, mobilised, unambiguous, and unwavering in its intersectional vision. Elsewhere in the film, TERROR NULLIUS follows the plight of the asylum seekers from Lucky Miles (Dir. Michael James Rowland, 2007) who find themselves washed ashore a beach where Russell Crowe’s skinheads from Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 film Romper Stomper are there to meet them alongside the Cronulla Beach rioters brought so memorably to life in Abe Forsythe’s Down Under (2016).
These same characters from Lucky Miles face-off against Mad Max 2’s monstrous Lord Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), who here boasts the addition of a Southern Cross tattoo (that notorious identifier of Australian white supremacists), standing alongside Pauline Hanson to make the link even clearer. Mel Gibson’s widely ignored status as a violent, aggressive misogynist is also lampooned, as Tom Hardy’s later incarnation of Gibson’s iconic “Mad” Max Rockatansky from George Miller’s internationally successful franchise gives Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa from Fury Road (2016) an audio tape of Gibson’s horrendous verbal abuse of his one-time partner Oksana Grigorieva that the latter secretly recorded.
Horrified, saddened and ultimately infuriated by hearing Gibson’s words, Furiosa and Fury Road’s female warrior army the Vuvalini are joined with a whole parade of fellow women icons from the Australian screen to punish him in an unrestrained physical assault: Nicole Kidman’s Judy from BMX Bandits (Dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1983) joins forces with Kate Winslet’s Ruth Barron from Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999) and Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy Olsson from Grease (Dir. Randy Kleisner, 1978) and a range of others who either actively attack or look on approvingly.
TERROR NULLIUS is a potent patchwork of similarly combined sounds and images, imbued with a new, unequivocal political agenda that actively mocks and disempowers white straight male power, revealed here to have direct and explicit links to the horrors of colonialism. From Leigh Bowery to Wolf Creek (Dir. Greg McLean, 2005), Gina Rinehart to The Castle (Dir. Rob Sitch, 1997), TERROR NULLIUS is as funny as it is outraged. Riffing on the regeneration of the Babadook as a queer icon spawned from a Netflix cataloguing error, Soda_Jerk amplify the cultural value of that meme by re-presenting the terror faced by Essie Davis’s Amelia as stemming from the fear that her son might be gay: the haunted pop-up book includes the image of a maraca-wielding Peter Allen and her house is riddled with framed photographs of national queer luminaries like Ian Thorpe. Cate Blanchett’s Carol looks on Amelia’s panic with cool, quiet ridicule as she smokes on the sofa while Amelia’s son is sucked towards an otherworldly gay nightclub with Kylie Minogue’s “Can't Get You Out of My Head” blaring.
If the political intent of the project somehow wasn’t yet clear, samples in the film’s end credits are ordered by prime ministerships, and the diversity of the visual materials they employ to reveal both the savviness of Soda_Jerk’s own screen literacy and that of their advisors, including Australian cinema academic Felicity Collins and veritable polymath Philip Brophy (whose brilliant yet critically maligned 1993 splatter film Body Melt receives a notable insertion).
As fresh and as exciting as TERROR NULLIUS is, as Ross Rudesch Harley noted in 2006, Soda_Jerk’s archival remix practice is part of a loose conceptual history that manifests across “the avantgarde filmmakers of the twenties, Situationist detournement of the sixties, Burrough’s cut-ups, eighties Metaphysical TV, contemporary VJ culture, open source and peer-to-peer networks.” Like their earlier work, TERROR NULLIUS continues to position Soda_Jerk in a creative tradition where “artists have always been plugged into archives, whether it be for inspiration, research or raw material.” For Harley, “The mutation of the archive through mechanical (then electronic) reproduction further accelerated this exchange,” and “armed with the ‘technics’ of cut-and-copy, artists, photographers and filmmakers have been hard at it, purposefully manipulating and hacking the archive for their own strategic ends.”
Internationally, one of the most acclaimed recent instances of this is surely Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog, a project funded by the San Francisco Film Society to close the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival. Using found footage sourced primarily from screen archives, Maddin and his co-directors Evan and Galen Johnson effectively reconstruct Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958). The Green Fog reimagines Hitchcock’s vision of San Francisco through alternative footage of the city discovered in their exploration of around two hundred archival television shows and movies to create what Maddin described as a “rhapsody,” rather than a remake or remix as such.
Other significant parallels can be made: Adrian Martin has identified parallels with Californian experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991), and in reference to their combination of archival remix and humour, British film critic Anton Bitel noted a shared spirit with Nick DenBoer and Dave Foss’s 2015 film The Chickening, “a poultry-infused visual remix of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.” Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s collaborations on their Montages: The Full Cut, 1999–2015 project are also worthy of note: as Maddee Clark noted, “Moffatt’s talent for reanimating dominant tropes from the cinematic and literary archive is a powerful infiltration into the narrative,” likewise applies to Soda_Jerk, albeit in a very different way.
While each of these are useful and important points of reference, the heart of Soda_Jerk’s practice transcends visual culture alone. In a 2017 interview, they stated explicitly that their creative origins stem more from music than visual culture: “In some ways we emerged from the Sydney electronic music community more than the art scene, taking vision from our friends in and around music.” They continued, “Sampling was a big part of the experimental music of that time, and there was also a punk approach to tech. We became interested in what it might mean to apply the tactics of sonic sampling to video.”
The reference to punk is far from merely aesthetic, although that spirit of aggressive DIY rawness certainly is a trademark of Soda_Jerk's work. In terms of ideology, TERROR NULLIUS evokes a specific kind of intersectionality that recalls US education academic Dr Jennifer L. Martin’s political awakening through her involvement in the Detroit punk rock scene where it “was more than just an aesthetic … it further distanced me from the politics and beliefs of those around me, took me to new places, and instilled in me an awareness of global politics and inequities – literally burning empathy and a sense of social justice within me.” For Martin, “punk … allowed me to connect with other marginalized texts, views, identities.”
In vernacular terms, TERROR NULLIUS is a work that proudly shows us its tits, driven by the anthemic punch of all those “fuck off!” drenched punk classics. If, as Adrian Martin so eloquently put it, montage is “the chief artistic, formal weapon in the entire Soda-Jerk arsenal”, here they bring their montage-as-armament approach into a cultural mosh-pit, slamdancing their way through the archive towards meaning. For academic, former dancer and one-time president of the Australian Screen Editors Guild Karen Pearlman, “movement is what editors mirror neurologically, what activates their kineasthetic empathy, and what they work with intuitively to shape the film's rhythm.” In TERROR NULLIUS, that beat is constant and unrelenting, and the song is nowhere more prominent than in the track that plays over their film’s title screen: the theme song to the long running ABC TV music program Rage, the word itself screamed by an exploited woman of colour.
TERROR NULLIUS is a euphoric 55-minute long drunken dance with a raised middle finger and I can think of nothing more Australian than that. By actively reframing the meaning of the dominantly conceived Australian film canon, Soda_Jerk’s work – described on their website as “part political satire, eco-horror and road movie”– powerfully and practically demonstrates Jonathan Rosenbaum’s observation that film canons are “an active process of selection rather than a passive one of reportage”. Soda_Jerk do not attempt anything so ambitious or ultimately futile as an alternate canon, but rather achieve something far more urgent: they reveal the gaps, the hypocrisies and the biases active within the canon we already have, reflective of a whole spectrum of issues and questions white Australia needs to desperately address.
- ^ Jason Di Rosso, “Terror Nulliusreview: Controversial Australian film offers a radical critique of the nation,” ABC News, 23 March 2018: www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-23/terror-nullius-review-jason-di-rosso/9576730.
- ^ Catriona Elder, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2007, p. 3.
- ^ “Weaponising Frustration and Despair – An Interview with Soda_Jerk,” The Lifted Brow, 26 March 2018: https://www.theliftedbrow.com/liftedbrow/2018/3/25/weaponising-frustration-and-despair-an-interview-with-sodajerk.
- ^ Archie Moore, “Artist statement: Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial,” National Gallery of Australia, 26 May – 10 September 2017.
- ^ Ross Rudesch Harley, “Alt. archive: the remix”, Photofile, no. 78, Spring 2006, p. 40.
- ^ ibid.
- ^ Eric Kohn, “News Film TV Awards Toolkit More Search ‘Vertigo’ Revisited: Guy Maddin Explores Hitchcock’s Classic with Found Footage — SF International Film Festival,” IndieWire, 15 April 2017: http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/vertigo-remake-guy-madden-the-green-fog-interview-1201805968/.
- ^ Adrian Martin, “Soda_Jerk: Flowers from the barrel of a gun,” Artlink 36:4, Parallel Universe, December 2016: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4555/soda5Fjerk-flowers-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun/.
- ^ Email to author, 24 March 2018.
- ^ Soheil Rezayazdi, “ ‘A poultry-infused visual remix’ of The Shining: Nick Denboer on The Chickening,” Filmmaker Magazine, 30 January 2016: http:indiewire.com/2017/04/vertigo-remake-guy-madden-the-green-fog-interview-1201805968/.
- ^ Review by Maddee Clark of Montages: The Full Cut 1999–2015, 17 March 2017: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4583/montages-the-full-cut-1999-2015/.
- ^ Briony Wright, “Soda Jerk remix cinema history to create the best movies that never existed,” i-D Magazine, 10 January 2017: https://i-d.vice.com/en_au/article/gyqeb9/soda-jerk-remix-cinema-history-to-create-the-best-movies-that-never-existed.
- ^ Jennifer L. Martin, Ashley E. Nickels, Martina Sharp-Grier, “Editor’s Introduction”, Feminist Pedagogy, Practice, and Activism: Improving Lives for Girls and Women, edited by Jennifer L. Martin, Ashley E. Nickels, Martina Sharp-Grier, New York: Routledge, 2017, p. xxvi.
- ^ Adrian Martin, “Soda_Jerk: Flowers from the barrel of a gun,” Artlink 36:4,: https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4555/soda5Fjerk-flowers-from-the-barrel-of-a-gun/.
- ^ Karen Pearlman, Cutting Rhythms: Intuitive Film Editing, New York: Focal Press, 2016, p. 30.
- ^ In reference to African-American actor Deni Gordon who has since revealed she was paid only $40 in 1987 for the job. See: Alex McClintock and Mike Williams, "Meet the woman who did the iconic Rageintro scream", ABC News, 28 April 2017: www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-28/we-found-the-woman-who-did-the-rage-scream/8473388.
- ^ Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2004, p. xiii.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an academic and film critic from Melbourne who has written five books on cult cinema. She was the co-curator of the “Pioneering Women” program at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival that celebrated Australian women’s filmmaking of the 1980s and early 1990s, and was an editor of the film journal Senses of Cinema, 2015–18.
TERROR NULLIUS is on exhibition screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, 20 March – 1 July 2018, and is touring internationally. acmi.net.au/terrornullius