If ‘Terror Nullius’ Is Un-Australian, Then Australia Is Truly Screwed

The controversial new film had funding pulled after backers allegedly declared it "un-Australian". But what's un-Australian about colonialism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia?

Terror Nullius

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Mel Gibson’s Mad Max gets beaten up by Nicole Kidman from BMX Bandits. Josh Thomas shares the screen with the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert. Anthony LaPaglia sits in his car in Lantana, listening to John Pilger lay bare this country’s violent colonial history, and breaks down in tears.

Terror Nullius is Australian cinema, but not as we know it. It is a patchwork polemic — a radical Frankenstein’s monster made up of iconic images and sounds that have been torn from their place in the national screen canon, and reappropriated for the merry, twisted, unapologetically political purpose of its creators. It has been described as a political satire, an eco-horror flick and road movie, and disowned by the funding body that helped pay for it. It seems purpose built to piss off political conservatives and movie purists alike.

And it’s fucking great.

Courting Controversy

Directed by Sydney-born siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro, better known collectively as Soda_Jerk, Terror Nullius is made up of footage and audio lifted from countless Australian films (as well as a select number of international titles), along with television programs, radio broadcasts, famous political speeches and more. So, for example, we can see Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in the same scene as the school girls from Picnic At Hanging Rock and Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek. Guess how that turns out…

In basic (if also fairly reductive) terms, it’s a giant, elaborate YouTube compilation video, one that is less concerned with weaving a narrative than it is with exposing and denouncing the multitudinous dark aspects of Australian history and culture, as reflected, intentionally or not, in the things that we watch.

It is also a Controversial Film™, with The Ian Potter Cultural Trust declaring one day before the movie’s premiere that it did not wish to be associated with its marketing or promotion. Which would be awkward enough even if the trust hadn’t provided Soda_Jerk with $100,000 to make it in the first place.

The filmmakers fired back, releasing a scathing public statement in which they accused the trust of pulling its support because the movie was “not in line with their conservative political values”. They also claimed the representatives from the trust had called the movie “un-Australian”.

“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.

While representatives from the trust never confirmed whether they actually called Terror Nullius “un-Australian”, they did describe the film as “a very controversial work of art”. Why they thought they’d be getting anything less is not really clear: Soda_Jerk have been around since 2002, and the “about” section of their website describes them as being “fundamentally interested in the politics of images: how they circulate, whom they benefit, and how they can be undone”. What did the stuffed shirts expect? Baz Luhrmann’s Australia?

Of course, it’s also hard to imagine that the controversy didn’t inspire more people to seek the film out. There’s no such thing as bad press, after all.

Australia On Screen

If nothing else, Terror Nullius is comprehensive. Soda_Jerk pull from sources far and wide, drawing on everything from Walkabout to Body Melt to Muriel’s Wedding. Movie nerds will have great fun picking out all the samples and references — in a way, the film is sort of like if Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One was also an experimental treatise on the lasting cultural trauma caused by colonialism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia, and also wasn’t shit.

Still, even if your knowledge of Australian screen culture only bats as deep as Kenny and the most recent season of MasterChef, you won’t have any trouble figuring out what Soda_Jerk are trying to say. Terror Nullius is not a subtle piece of work. This is a film that picks its targets and runs them through without a moment’s hesitation.

It decries our country’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers by having the BDSM-themed villain of Mad Max 2 read out John Howard’s infamous election night speech in which he triumphantly declared that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

It turns violence on violent misogynists by having Charlize Theron from Fury Road listen to the recording of Mel Gibson’s abusive phone call to ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva, before sending a squad of iconic female characters to make a mess of Mad Max and his beloved car.

It savages our wilful blindness when it comes to the horrific legacy of European settlement, with Skippy pondering white Australia’s complicity in the oppression, dispossession and genocide of a people who lived here for tens of thousands of years.

Oh, and it also embraces the Gay Babadook meme, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

Skippy is woke AF.

The bizarre, incongruous nature of these sequences makes them funny, but it’s the uncomfortable truths they force into the spotlight that leaves the greatest impression. Which is, of course, the point.

Turning Icons On Their Head

Terror Nullius is deeply critical of this country and its post-colonial mythology. But that in itself is not what makes it so powerful.

Rather, it’s the fact that Soda_Jerk make their critique using the beloved screen icons that help reinforce those myths. They take true-blue Aussies from The Crocodile Hunter to Crocodile Dundee and fuck with them. Warp them. Make us question what they mean. Film and television are essential in how a nation sees itself — they’re the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And in Australia’s case, those stories are overwhelmingly straight, white and male.

Which is why it’s so invigorating to see a pair of female filmmakers shoot Mick Dundee point blank in the chest.

None of this is to say that Soda_Jerk are the only ones intent on disrupting the status quo. From Wake in Fright‘s unflinching vision of toxic masculinity in the outback to Prisoner‘s portrayal of feminism and lesbianism in prime time, Australian film and television has a proud radical history — one that continues to this day.

In the past couple of years, we’ve been gifted with the sublime transgender family drama 52 Tuesdays, the savagely satirical Cronulla riots comedy Down Under, and the fiercely feminist action flick Mad Max: Fury Road, to name but a few. At the same time, immensely talented Indigenous directors like Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen continue to reclaim the medium as a space for Indigenous stories with incredible films like Sweet Country and Mystery Road. 

Which brings us back to the question of whether Terror Nullius is “un-Australian”.

Like all the best movies made in this country, it’s a bold hodgepodge of ideas and characters from every imaginable background. It’s a work of technical ingenuity held together by an irreverent sense of humour. It roots for the underdog, and thumbs its nose at authority.

If that’s “un-Australian”, then Australia is truly fucked.

Terror Nullius screened at the Sydney Film Festival, and is currently showing at ACMI in Melbourne. 

Tom Clift is Junkee’s after-hours editor, and tweets at @tom_clift.