The Yabba, 1971. My genesis is a panorama of nothing on some faraway blasted plain where the closest thing to life is the way vision warps in the heat. I’d be lying if I were to tell you I remembered anything before this desolation. Who is at home nowhere? This isn’t a riddle, it’s a failure of imagination.
The opening shot of Wake in Fright is — for me anyway — where Australian film begins, if we allow image to be unshackled from chronology. National cinema arises in this conception of ‘woop woop', the back of beyond, not here but out there. Nobody’s land, crowded with the ghosts killed to conceive of nothingness. The red earth hungers for more blood.
I’ve been trying to write a book about Australian cinema for years now. Lately I find myself scribbling lists of questions instead, questions of questions, Socratic dialogues with nobody for nobody.
The one question I keep coming back to is this: can telling it slant offer an exit from history’s churning? Like, is it better to keep remembering, a neurotic lapping at the wound, or to toss a match and watch it burn? Why keep restoring this celluloid determined to disintegrate, when artists should be able to remake the world anew?
But fuck, I’m not God. I’m just a writer jonesing for meaning. How dumb to dream of shrugging off the past.
If I left this country and never came back, I wonder how much my memories of movie life and life life would blur. Edward Said says the exile experiences the present contrapuntally, a new melody playing in tandem with that of the longed-for place to which they can never return. Sometimes excessive movie-watching makes home feel ruptured, too, each new experience conjuring flickers of the lives lived in the dark.
Cinephiles are granted the freedom to visit again, but can we ever see the exact same film twice? So often fragments escape their point of reference to haunt the borderlands of the mind. That line, that moment, that scene, that face… was it from a movie or a dream?
This is how I’ve been thinking about Terror Nullius (2018), video artist duo Soda_Jerk’s hour-long mash-up of Australian film past. Sisters Dan and Dominique Angeloro view the mother country with the clarity of distance, from self-imposed exile first in Berlin and now New York.
In their dream’s logic, nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. Here is one blueprint for starting again: rather than forgetting the fucked-up history they’re born into, Soda_Jerk’s new world emerges phoenix-like from the detritus of the old. Images are wrenched from their origins and bent to the artists’ will.
Wake in Fright’s full circle nothingness is countered with a riotous vision of something more. The British siblings from Walkabout (1971) who wander blindly into the desert are no longer hapless colonials in an unforgiving land, to be saved by a noble savage (the great David Gulpilil’s first role) lusting after the pure white virgin. Instead the white boy spray-paints an anarchist symbol, in the colours of the Aboriginal flag, on his detached daddy’s car.
The drag queens from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) pull up in their lavender bus, the homophobic graffiti plastered across its facade by hick locals in Broken Hill (where Wake in Fright was filmed) still fresh. They flick their shades down to meet the glare.
“Oh, Felicia. Where the fuck are we?”
The locus of terror isn’t a boy in a dress, lost in the desert. It’s the sight of nothingness rolling out before him, and the horrors enacted to sustain it. Captain Cook’s declaration of terra nullius wasn’t a failure of imagination nor a willful forgetting, but a violent dispossession. So much Australian cinema is not only complicit in this perverse national origin story but actively fosters and perpetuates it.
Terror Nullius rejects the borders politicians are so determined to maintain. The artists move fluidly, erasing boundaries between once discrete films, taking from anything and everything. Sacred cows such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Piano (1993) merge with abominations like outback wedding romp A Few Best Men (2011), underclass farce Housos vs Authority (2012) and Cronulla riot satire Down Under (2016).
Soda_Jerk commandeers all these unwitting participants into a speculative utopian fantasy where those bodies erased from the national narrative — the black, the female, the queer, the animal — they all rise up to fight back.
The women of Australian film history unite in a euphoric takedown of fallen hero Mel Gibson: Jacqueline McKenzie, beautiful and crazy, in Angel Baby (1995); Deborah Mailman as naïf Nona in Radiance (1998); our Nicole in her fake Woolf nose in The Hours (2002); the women warriors of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); Muriel and Rhonda giggling conspiratorially (Muriel’s Wedding, 1994), while another incarnation of Nicole, this time with her red frizzy halo, flies through the air on her hot wheels (BMX Bandits, 1983). Motorcycle Mel, the leather-clad saviour of Mad Max (1979), is left to bleed out in the dust.
Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott become members of Mad Max’s marauding gangs, protecting the precious resources behind Woomera’s gates. Skippy has found his political consciousness, telling Sonny how the disappearance of the white girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock obfuscates a history of brutality, colonisation, genocide. Animals wreak their revenge, with the bloodthirsty jumbucks of Black Sheep (2006) descending on bicentennial celebrations, and boxing kangaroos seeking vengeance after Wake in Fright’s infamous roo-shooting scene.
Part of Terror Nullius’s joy is the pleasure of recognition, the fan rewarded exponentially for the breadth of their viewing. Just when you thought the internet had made the mash-up de rigueur, Soda_Jerk gives the form back its emancipatory power: those nineties notions of once-feminised and derided fans speaking back to the capitalist culture machine. Soda_Jerk renders cultural hierarchies of ‘artistic authenticity’ meaningless, just like Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg’s montages (1999–2015), and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour epic The Clock (2010) did before them. Delineating between ‘high’ and ‘low’ is intellectually démodé.
Soda_Jerk shows that the mash-up still offers the possibility of transgression. Their first major work Hollywood Burn (2006), which they described as a “remix manifesto,” was an audacious rejection of copyright law; it’s still available to download from their website. (Cue those maudlin ads on Australian DVDs proclaiming what you’re really burning is our industry.) Their work has continually questioned notions of ownership, liberating cinema from its economic imperatives. Like, does Australia make the same films over and over because this is what consumes our collective consciousness? Or do filmmakers pander to what funding bodies have deemed a financially viable narrative this year?
Terror Nullius was the latest Ian Potter Moving Image Commission — the largest commission of its kind in this country — to be shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. In the lead-up to its premiere, members of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust distanced themselves, deeming the work “unAustralian.” Worn-out notions of what does and what doesn’t constitute an Australian story endure.
After seeing Terror Nullius I wander, dazed, into the National Gallery of Victoria next door. They’re showing a behemoth exhibition called Colony: Australia 1770- 1861, collating art and artefacts produced between the first landing and British colonisation. Rooms and rooms of early diaries, bush paintings still in the palette of the mother country, scientific drawings, atlases, maps, a Dixson cabinet of curiosities. The Enlightenment quest for knowledge is another form of conquering.
In every room I just want to feel something, but that residual emptiness is hard to shake. The closest I come is when faced with the etchings of New Holland, the calligraphy of the coastline, these fragile lines enacting something so ugly. There’s something heartbreaking about their futility, these impotent attempts to control the limitless, but we all know how this story ends.
In various pastoral scenes an Aboriginal clan is added in the foreground as a picturesque detail, spears held aloft. Alongside scientific drawings of bright pink banksias, vaginal stamens resembling a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, or kangaroos that look like dogs, there’s the nameless black men and women drawn with exaggerated features. They’re classified amongst the fauna, soon to be cast as a dying race unfit for the new world.
Upstairs there is a counter-exhibition named Colony: Frontier Wars, offering Indigenous artists’ redress on colonisation. From all that pain emerges a lineage of staggering work, from ‘King of the Yarra’ William Barak (who led a walk from Coranderrk Mission to Parliament in 1874) to contemporary artists like Gordon Bennett, Bindi Cole and Christian Thompson.
In the final room is a painting by Judy Watson, ‘black ground’ (1989), where the red and black abstraction looks like the earth is roiling with fire. Carved through the centre is a sharp white curve. Watson compares it to the chalk outlines of corpses at crime scenes, though here “the white line is the line of colonisation cutting into black ground.” The half oval continues off the edges of the canvas, refusing completion.
There’s a scene in Alena Lodkina’s debut feature Strange Colours (2017) when Milena (Kate Cheel) descends into her father’s opal mine.
She’s arrived in Lightning Ridge, the self-declared “Black Opal capital of the world!” on news that her father — played by Daniel P Jones, the former inmate who starred in Hail (2011) — is dying. There’s always a subtle menace beneath his tenderness as he lays prostrate in his hospital bed. The hurt from old wounds, unspoken, hangs in the air between them.
Each day Milena returns to her father’s tin shed home without him, where the division between inside and outside is meaningless. When she arrives there’s a python in the living room. At night she curls up on a trundle bed set up in the dust, beneath the stars. When her father gets out of hospital he offers to drag some rusty corrugated iron across the yard and give this patch of dirt walls — a room of one’s own — but this seeming kindness is an attempt to exert proprietorial control. Even the absentee father has delusions that the prodigal daughter will return to him. Later he rattles a jar of her baby teeth in her face that he claims to have carried around the country, a macabre symbol of his purported devotion. But I digress. Milena’s entering his opal mine, a small shaft in a dusty plain, which he’s convinced someone’s been stealing from while he’s holed up in the hospital. There seems to be no division between land in Lightning Ridge either — her father’s shaggy friends are always turning up unannounced to make sure Milena’s doing okay, or she wanders over to their place just up the road to borrow their car — yet her father sees this hole in the ground as his kingdom. Without much else, he presides over it fiercely.
Descending into the bowels of the earth, she weaves between musty beams that look like they’re barely holding the roof aloft. In the darkness she sees something glowing. For a second the film moves away from its washed-out realism to an image of this glittering thing, a subterranean oracle in the shadows. Oceans of colour swirl on the jewel’s face, blues and greens and glimmers of pink radiating. The next shot she’s outside once more in the beating sun. We’re not privy to how this sight has changed her, but for a second Lodkina transforms this chintzy gemstone into a beautiful mystery.
I’ve always seen opals as kitsch Australiana, peddled to tourists alongside stuffed koalas and mass-produced boomerangs. Their dreamy palettes are juvenile in their charms. They look like the sham gems of mood rings, carved from unicorn horns, as changeable as teenage tempers or desires. I thought it was their price tag, too, but when I google them I realise they’re fucking expensive. The fact that Lodkina can reveal their magic says so much about the lucidity of her vision.
An old housemate of mine had a semi-itinerant mum who at one point ended up living in Lightning Ridge. We had no idea where to place it on the map, just that it was the middle of nowhere, but we’d giggle and roll our eyes at the care packages of opal jewellery she’d send. Now I wonder how much she spent on these scorned gifts that would pile up in the corners of our sharehouse, where the mouldy wallpaper was peeling off in sheets.
In Strange Colours, Milena is itinerant too. She’s got vague plans of continuing on to Alice Springs, where a friend has promised her a job, but she doesn’t seem to have any place to be. Neither does anyone else in Lightning Ridge. When her father’s friends invite her for a morning beer or take her to the pub or keep telling her she’s beautiful, we wait for the inevitable denouement: when will they pounce, when will they reveal the “aggressive hospitality” we know to fear, when will men do what men do. But it never comes.
For these men aren’t hackneyed characters from the stories we can’t seem to stop telling ourselves over and over and over, where the scarred landscape is the fount of our national prosperity. These men are singular in their stumbling progression, largely played by locals recruited from the town, whose familiar faces we’ve never seen onscreen. They’re weathered by the landscape, by neglect, by hard lives and the mistakes that led them here. And yet they keep telling Milena that Lightning Ridge is a place where life can be lived on one’s own terms. Still, they all seem to be running away from something.
Most people in Strange Colours are comfortable with silence, and Lodkina doesn’t rush in to fill the gaps. Here is a film where history aches all around, radiating in the red dust, the cracked salt plains and the faces of the crusty men who insist this is the best place in the world, telling Milena she belongs. Unlike the nightmare of Wake in Fright’s cloistered community, Strange Colours shows woop woop can be a place of refuge that welcomes the outsiders who don’t fit anyplace else.
I keep going to write that Strange Colours is a film unburdened by history, but to be unburdened doesn’t mean to be free. Lodkina sees these landscapes and the people who populate them through clear eyes, not through the troubling archetypes of films past. That this was achieved largely outside of traditional funding models, supported by the prestigious Venice Biennale College, is telling.
Lodkina trusts that small gestures — I keep returning to the moment Milena offers her dying father a hand to steady himself on a ridge and he shoos her away — can say more than these cycles and repetitions. Milena tells her father she doesn’t want to be scared of him anymore, but this tiny moment confirms the past is not something that can be willed away. The pain wrought by our fathers lingers in the present.
And yet the face of an opal, gleaming in the wounded earth, insists there’s still hope in the dark.
This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.
Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a Melbourne-based writer, critic and PhD candidate. Her award-winning work has been published widely across Australia and the world.
Maria Yanovsky is a Sydney-based graphic and motion designer currently experimenting with graphic portraiture.