Every now and then a new artwork is surrounded by a storm of controversy so loud it drowns out the work itself. The latest is Terror Nullius, a vibrant, cutting new film work by Australian artists Soda_Jerk, opening at ACMI this week. It was produced with the support of the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, which revoked its support just days before the premiere.
Soda_Jerk is the nom de plume of sisters Dominique and Dan Angeloro. You might have seen their collaboration with The Avalanches in 2016. (Just like The Avalanches, Soda_Jerk takes disparate elements and builds them into something more than just an accomplished collage.) In quintessentially Australian style, Terror Nullius is made from the finest local and imported ingredients. It’s a 50-minute revenge odyssey and a satirical, playful, post-modern critique of our messy post-colonial society.
The film shifts focus with the landscape, from desert to beach to countryside, building crossovers between Australian filmic classics including Walkabout, The Cars That Ate Paris, Please Like Me, Puberty Blues, Babe and countless others. There’s no narrative as such – just a linked chain of vignettes in which pop-cultural refugees from dozens of films and TV shows play out parodies and critiques of contemporary Australian identity alongside politicians and media figures.
The funny stuff is funny – Picnic at Hanging Rock characters observing Steve and Terri Irwin, for example – but its real heart is the fury simmering behind it. No one gets off easy. Misogynists, racists and roo hunters. Howard, Abbott and Hanson. All are targeted – some killed – in a riotous tapestry of Australian mythology. Conservative sensibilities may be offended, particularly when Pauline Hanson stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Lord Humungus’s gang in Mad Max 2.
Soda_Jerk uses film and the richness of Australian pop culture to decry, threaten and mock, turning the potency of the media back on itself. It’s powerful and memorable stuff.
And yet the Ian Potter Cultural Trust revoked its support for and association with the project days before its premiere – and after having contributed $100,000 to its creation – calling it “a very controversial piece of art”. Soda_Jerk released a shocked statement on Facebook claiming the trust called the work “un-Australian”.
The film starts with the national anthem played on airhorn, then immediately samples Wake in Fright, news footage of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the theme from Rage .
It’s got Nicole Kidman (in her BMX Bandits guise, no less) riding into a battle scene from Mad Max. It’s got footage of Russell Crowe from Romper Stomper interspersed with the Cronulla riots. There’s a scene from Lucky Miles depicting a refugee boat arriving in Western Australian waters. And Skippy critiquing the colonial narrative of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Is that not the most Australian series of events you can imagine?
"If our film paints a less than perfect picture of Australia it’s because we think these dark political times absolutely call for it," Soda_Jerk said in its statement. "We’ve been deeply shaken by the Ian Potter’s response, not because they don’t share our political views, but because we feel it shouldn’t matter whether they share our views or not. Surely the function of political art is not to reinforce consensus but to deliver an open invitation to further conversation.
“Their decision also seems all too appropriate for a work that fundamentally aims to consider how power and interest are intrinsically connected to the control and circulation of narratives and images.”
In a turn of events usually referred to as the Streisand Effect, Terror Nullius will now go on to find a far wider audience and will be forever synonymous with the funding body desperate to cut ties with it. And it deserves to.
There’s an apocryphal story about an early screening of Wake in Fright at which an extremely unhappy viewer stood up midway through the film and protested “No! That’s not us!”, to which Jack Thompson responded, “Sit down, mate. It’s us.”
Terror Nullius is weird, messy, cruel and diverse, and that’s as good a description of Australia in 2018 as we’re ever likely to get in a single 50-minute film. It’s us.
Terror Nullius is screening hourly at ACMI until July 1.