'Some Big Fatalism: A Review of "Terror Nullius" by Soda_Jerk', by Ben Juers

Expat sample-art duo Soda_Jerk’s new film Terror Nullius, masterfully patched together from scraps of Australian cinema and archival footage, is pitched alternately as a “political revenge fable”, “part political satire, eco-horror and road movie”, “a queering and othering of Australian cinema”, “a mix of the historical and the speculative, the grindhouse and art house”, “not a definitive counter-narrative but a meticulous ramshackle of connections that delivers an open invitation to a further cultural conversation”, a “rogue remapping” and “unwriting of national mythology”. I guess that’s all bases covered. The film was funded by a $100,000 grant, given out in 2017 by the Ian Potter Foundation in partnership with ACMI, only for the Ian Potter Foundation to rescind their support a day before the film’s release on 20 March this year. (ACMI held their ground.) According to an announcement made by Soda_Jerk on their Facebook page, the decision was made on the grounds that the finished product was “un-Australian.”

What the Ian Potter Foundation expected from an “unwriting of national mythology” is unclear. Perhaps something more like Soda_Jerk’s previous work The Was (2016); a joyfully anarchic, psychedelic but less overtly political collaboration with the Avalanches, that drew primarily on American pop culture from the 70s onwards.

Soda_Jerk’s post about the Ian Potter Foundation’s withdrawal went modestly viral, garnering solidarity on social media. The upside of this is that Terror Nullius’s PR becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, drumming up the same rage in the audience that the film claims to “wear on its sleeve”. Simply watching and supporting it feels vaguely like activism. But it also sets an unreasonable standard. Buoyed by the small scandal, you might go into the film expecting onscreen devastation: Australia burnt to the ground, as Indigenous activist Tarneen Onus-Williams put it neatly last Invasion Day (a statement for which she was hounded frothily by professional neo-con fear-mongers).

The reality’s slightly different. Terror Nullius is a virtuoso cut-and-paste job that’s both rowdy and precise. It deftly rejigs the larrikinism we’re constantly told is so crucial to our national character (which, at the same time, is fenced off as inherently masculine), along with the old détournement techniques that have been knocking around in the lefty art arsenal since the Situationists. For a feature-length experimental piece, it’s also cohesive, rarely dipping. But it doesn’t quite reach the blistering, fever pitch, scorched earth polemic you’d infer from the fleeing Ian Potter Foundation.

The impossibility of spinning a tidy, linear narrative out of the video collage results instead in a jagged series of vignettes. Righteous justice is doled out methodically to the toxic white ’Strayan macho canon. An eagle assassinates Russell Crowe-as-Hando-from-Romper-Stomper (1992) for assaulting beached refugees; Mel Gibson’s bilious phone rant at Oksana Grigoriev gets Mad Max mangled and his car eviscerated by an all-woman bike gang comprising Furiosa, Nicole Kidman, Olivia Newton-John and characters from Wolf Creek (2005) and Murial’s Wedding (1994); Linda Kozlowski answers Pal Hogan’s Dundee schtick with a shotgun, leaving him to be devoured by his famous namesake; John Howard and Tony Abbott get a metal boomerang to the face. (“Sure,” you find yourself salivating, “but what about Dutton?”) The climax – a bicentenary-turned-battlefield in the third and final act – is lifted heavily from Black Sheep (2006) and has some good, absurd moments thrown in from elsewhere. But the scene falls just short of catharsis, and feels like a missed chance to unite all the film’s various politics into one big, all-out Tory-bash. Perhaps this is because it’s carried out solely by sheep, rather than, say, an all-inclusive rabble of genderfluid, emu-riding black bloc, sentient she-oaks and Divide & Dissolve.

The absence of this rowdy communality wouldn’t be so conspicuous if it hadn’t been achieved so easily in The Was through sheer density and rapidity of samples, packed into a shorter running time. Gibson’s fate comes close, because it’s the most elaborate: you can’t help but feel like a participant. Since it comes early on in the film, the skirmishes afterwards give diminishing returns and get increasingly nonchalant, reducing boiling-over rage to simmering contempt. But altogether they do give the sense of some big fatalism, so massive as to be unseeable in its entirety, looming over the landscape.

The film’s framing, as though buckling under this immense but obscured weight (the weight of history) has an appropriately wonky, carnival-mirror asymmetry. It begins by overlaying the Wake in Fright (1971) country with David Gulpilil’s iconic Ten Canoes (2006) opener – “but I am going to tell you a story…not like my story, but a good story all the same” – and ends, shortly after John Pilger’s excoriating summary of Australian colonialism, with a ripe, Castle-era Stephen Curry, standing in for said colonialism, declaring gormlessly: “This is my story.” (Poor Curry: one minute he’s hawking chips, next he’s copping it for the whole flaming shit-pile.)

The offhand shuffling around of Gulpilil’s voice starts you off warily. Presumably it was covered during the process of Indigenous consultation that Soda_Jerk described in our interview. Still, going into a “rogue remapping of national mythology” titled Terror Nullius, it’d be naïve not to be on the lookout for something well-intentioned but culturally accident-prone or fetishistic (as with Clinton Walker’s recent Deadly Woman Blues debacle). In fact, this is a point that the film makes. But the Gulpilil sound-bite, followed by the flawless superimposition of Archie Moore’s Aboriginal Anarchy (2012) onto the door of the jalopy in Walkabout (1971, the first film in which Gulpilil starred), turn out to be side-stepping stones. Afterwards, Terror Nullius settles into a pattern of featuring, but only occasionally centering, Indigenous characters – one way of avoiding fetishism.

Of the instances that do center Indigenous concerns, most rely on animals as stand-ins for those issues. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo qualifies her feminism by questioning whether the fate of the white girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock will become, in her subtitled words, a “national obsession” that “exacerbates the ongoing obfuscation of our complicity in a colonial history of oppression, dispossession and genocide”. Whether or not academic jargon is being parodied here is unclear. So to drive the point home, Skippy hands Sonny an Aboriginal flag overlaid with the text, ‘White Australia has a Black History’. Later, berserk sheep refrain from killing a man because he’s wearing a “Land Rights Not Uranium” badge. The tone in these moments is hard to place, because their goofiness blends in with that of the cut-up visuals.

Otherwise, the film focuses on taking the piss out of ’Straya. What’s revealed is unsurprising: that our thing for outdoorsy types is the symptom of a colonial society ill-at-ease in its own backyard and perpetually overcompensating for it. Pilger’s sound-bite, the real climax of the film, hints at why this might be. It harks back to an idea pioneered by American folklorist Gershon Legman in 1949: the dominant culture’s knack for industrial-scale violence and inventing abstract villains is fed by a low-key mass hysteria, arising from repressed, collective guilt over its genocidal past.

If Terror Nullius isn’t quite as incendiary as you’d hope, it’s because the well of collective resentment and frustration that it taps into is simply too deep to find adequate expression in a medium that still, despite all Soda_Jerk’s code-switching, requires the audience to watch more or less passively. Maybe the film really comes into its own in a rowdy group setting, with accompanying Rocky Horror and Room-style rituals and drinking games: one shot per dead misogynist. The ACMI atmosphere is unlikely to be conducive to this; as of writing, the film has yet to spark any riots that result in the formation of a new Paris commune in Melbourne’s CBD. In the meantime, Terror Nullius’ revenge fantasies work as a primer, and a reminder that what’s really needed to edge them over into reality, apart from more free culture activists like Soda_Jerk, is 1) further concrete action, through strikes, protests, organizing, communality, Indigenous consultation, educating and workshopping, and 2) the recruitment and training of birdlife to assassinate naff celebrities.

Ben Juers is the co-art editor at The Lifted Brow. In case you missed it, last week both TLB Art Editors, Ben Juers and Bailey Sharp spoke with Soda_Jerk about Terror Nullius and their work.

Terror Nullius is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from the 20th of March to the 1st of July.