Terror Nullius: White Australian mythology pummelled on screen

Soda_Jerk juxtapose and reframe old film footage in ‘eco-horror road movie’ Terror Nullius

 

Mad Max is set upon by a group of angry women, including Charlize Theron from Mad Max: Fury Road, Olivia Newton-John from Grease and Nicole Kidman from BMX Bandits. “Catholic to the Max” reads the bumper sticker on his patrol car. That vehicle is burned by dozens of gleeful females, including the Muriel’s Wedding pals and the Heavenly Creatures girls.

Skippy the Bush Kangaroo peers over the edge of a cliff and sees the bodies of three ill-fated schoolgirls and their teacher from Picnic at Hanging Rock.

“What will we do, Skippy,” asks the marsupial’s human chum.

“Sonny, you know I’m a feminist,” says Skippy. “But what if the fate of these four fictional white girls becomes a national obsession? It may well exacerbate the ongoing obfuscation of our complicity in a colonial history of oppression, dispossession, and genocide.” The kangaroo hands – or perhaps paws? – over an Australian Aboriginal flag emblazoned with the words: “White Australia has a Black History.”

You better watch out, Crocodile Dundee. No, really.

Welcome to the wonderful parallel cine-world of Terror Nullius, an hour-long experimental film, named after a cherished Imperialist Latin phrase. The project reframes and remixes footage from existing Australian movies, television programmes and news media for a post YouTube generation. Gough Whitlam’s famous post-dismissal speech from 1975 plays on the radio of the Volkswagen that brought Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg to the outback in Walkabout; the bus from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert seamlessly passes by the background.

The project which has been billed by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image as “equal parts political satire, eco-horror and road movie . . . a rogue remapping of national mythology, where a misogynistic remark is met with the sharp beak of a bird, feminist bike gangs rampage and bicentenary celebrations are ravaged by flesh-eating sheep” is the work of sisters Dan and Dominique Angeloro, collectively known as Soda_Jerk.

“We’ve been officially collaborating since 2002 and of course media, technologies and our methodologies have all evolved in that time,” the film-makers told The Irish Times.

“We used to take a suitcase to our local Video Ezy store and stuff it full of weekly VHS rentals to watch, pirate and archive with handwritten liner-notes. Seventeen years later it’s towers of Blu-rays and hard drives. For Terror Nullius we had this 123-page excel spreadsheet where we’d log every sample with its timecode, media format, native ratio and transcoding equation.

“As self-taught artists we’ve always believed in the awesome pedagogical powers of YouTube tutorials, internet forums and of course the IRL wisdoms of mates, peers and project advisers.”

Terror Nullius shares some DNA with René Viénet’s 1973 film Can Dialectics Break Bricks?, a Situationist détournement by which a 1972 Hong Kong kung fu film was re-dubbed with an elaborate critique of class conflicts, French communism, Maoism, cultural hegemony, sexual inequality and mainstream cinema’s endless reps for capitalist ideology. Politically, say Soda_Jerk, their film is a revenge fable that touches on such former headlines as the 2001 Tampa crisis and the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey; formally, it’s a love letter to Australian cinema that embraces both Oscar-winners (The Piano) and the lowliest Ozploitation (zombie kangaroo short film, Waterborne).

“If we tried to actually log the hours spent watching footage for Terror Nullius it would be like that library scene in Ghostbusters where the index drawers start opening and the cards start flying through the air and the librarian screams uncontrollably, haunted by the horror of it all,” says Soda_Jerk.

“But seriously, we have always been nerds for Australian cinema so we had a pretty good head start on material. And then, additionally, for the 18 months we worked intensively on Terror Nullius we exclusively watched Australian film and screen culture, a self-imposed cinema prison entirely more wonderful than it might sound.

“Obviously, there’s a whole cinephilia circuit in New York, so abnormal viewing habits are happily normative. And we’re part of a collective that runs a microcinema in Brooklyn, which shows weird and forgotten films for $5 every night. But we’re also big fans of laptop cinema. We really don’t discriminate about how we see things, but while we’re developing a new film we tend to exclusively watch material associated with the parameters of that project.”

Although the response from film and art critics has been unanimously positive, not everyone has been keen to see white Australian mythology pummelled on the screen.

“We accept that there are aspects of the work that might be uncomfortable for some people,” note the film-makers. “Although what that might be will depend entirely on who they are, not what the work is. For some, it’s the women of Fury Road listening to Mel Gibson’s obscene misogynistic rant recorded by his ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva, and for others it’s the flock of flesh-eating sheep devouring a bicentennial 1988 celebration. For others again, it’s the take-down of far-right Australian political figures Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson – but who can fault us for that? It’s a revenge fantasy, after all. What’s sacred to John Waters isn’t going to be the same as what’s sacred for the Dalai Lama, so you have to be prepared to tune your own moral compass. For us, that absolutely means treating all materials with deep knowledge and care, and for every sample that we include in our work there’s been another that we’ve chosen not to.”

‘Un-Australian’

In what would ultimately prove to be a spectacular own goal, one of Australia’s pre-eminent arts funding bodies withdrew promotional support for the movie just days before its scheduled premiere at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, having previously backed the project to the sum of $100,000.

Last March, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust backed away from the project as “a very controversial piece of art” and “un-Australian”. In a statement the trust noted that while “it respects [Soda_Jerk’s] right to create it, to show it, and for audiences to form their own opinion in respect of its message . . . that in the circumstances it does not wish to be associated with the marketing or publicity promoting this production. All financial commitments made by The Ian Potter Cultural Trust as part of The Ian Potter Moving Images Commission (IPMIC) will be met in full.”

This decision looks all the more bizarre when one considers Soda_Jerk’s larger body of work. To date, their work has exploited the fair dealing exceptions for works of parody and satire in Australia and protections of fair use within US copyright law.

Their first feature film, Hollywood Burn, was made entirely from pirated film samples. In 2006, Picnic at Wolf Creek, a six-minute short they produced, meshed the schoolgirls of Hanging Rock and ended with a busload of drag queens squaring up to Gibson.

“Perhaps the biggest surprise was when we won the $100,000 commission to make Terror Nullius, because although we felt we had a really strong proposal, it was pitched as a bloody, misbehaving, sample-based, arthouse-meets-grindhouse, political revenge fable,” says Soda_Jerk.

“So we had mad respect for ACMI and the Ian Potter Foundation for wanting to see and support this kind of work to be made. So there was no Trojan horse manoeuvre on our part. The project we proposed to the Ian Potter Foundation was precisely the one that we delivered. We feel that the answer to this riddle lies in the contemporary allure of political art for institutions and funding bodies.

“However, what they really want is political art that’s still polite, work that is dangerous in name only, without any kind of real risk. And if an artist or artwork doesn’t toe this line, the institution inevitably starts to worry about the potential risks involved with the broader reception of the work, particularly amongst stakeholders.”

Soda_Jerk will present Terror Nullius at the Irish Film Institute on March 19th

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