There’s a sequence in Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius that epitomises the problem with Australian culture perfectly. Well, not just one sequence actually – the whole film epitomises the problem with Australian culture.
But, the one sequence that comes to mind when I think of Terror Nullius, is the sequence where the refugees from the superb Lucky Miles stumble onto an Australian beach, only to be stunned by the presence of Russell Crowe’s Hando taking part in a beat up in the surf. A look of terror falls on the faces of the refugees as the land of hope, harmony, and peace, that they’d just risked their lives to reach is shown to be a lie. The cacophony of men beating up men, of tanned bodies in surf life saving gear, of a man with ‘we grew here, you flew here’ emblazoned on his chest, all paints the image of 100% Aussie Pride.
Let’s get this straight – there’s no traditional narrative to Terror Nullius. This is purely political art. One that harnesses Australian pop culture, icons, movies, characters, and politics, and throws them in a blender, spitting out a searing indictment of masculinity, racism, and the pure foundations of Australia. Soda_Jerk bundle everything from Mad Max to Lantana to Lucky Miles to Crocodile Dundee, and bend the original texts meaning to breaking point. Subversion is key – Mel Gibson’s noxious phone message rant to his ex is played back to his version of Max Rockanstansky as he lays bleeding on a road, with powerful women from Australian cinema wailing on him like enraged furies.
To get the crass comparison out of the way – this is the Australian version of Ready Player One. But, y’know, with substance. With that in mind, Terror Nullius is best enjoyed with a deep understanding of Australian cinema. Instead of just ticking off the filmic reference and going, ‘I know that movie’ and moving on, the informed knowledge of what the film that is referenced is about helps fuel the messages that drive Terror Nullius.
When Skippy unexpectedly becomes a feminist hero who reminds us that Australia has a black history, you witness the transformation with the knowledge of the era that Skippy came out, and the knowledge that both women’s rights and the rights of indigenous Australians were almost non-existent at the time. When Pauline Hanson appears alongside the ruthless villains of the Mad Max series, you witness it with the knowledge of what Hanson stands for, as well as the devastating future that George Miller’s creation hauntingly suggests could very well happen.
This is not to say that Terror Nullius is impenetrable to those who are unfamiliar with Australian cinema, it’s just to say that the understanding is amplified when an appreciation of Australian cinema is applied. (And, y’know, it’s also me just trying to get people to give films like Lucky Miles and Down Under a shot.)
Terror Nullius is pure, giddy excitement. It’s one of the most adrenaline pumping, timely, pieces of art this country has ever laid witness to. This is a harsh look at the feedback loop that has dragged Australia to the point where we are now. Like every film, this is steeped in politics, but it’s also steeped in culture. It’s unashamedly left leaning, it does not give one single fuck about whether you agree with its message or not, it simply demands you sit there and reflect on the world we live in. As the sheep from Black Sheep lay waste to a group of right wing supporters, with the sound of the Celebration of a Nation song blaring over the scenes of carnage, you can’t help but feel a tinge of glee – especially as Dame Edna Everage is taken down screaming.
Yes, Terror Nullius may not be for everybody. It’s unique. It takes no prisoners. It’s ruthless. But it’s what Australia needs right now. It’s what Australian cinema needs right now. It’s a film that as soon as it finished, I wanted to take another spin round.
The first time I saw Terror Nullius was at Melbourne’s ACMI. It was 10am and the only other person in the screening was an elderly Chinese lady. I sat through the film, enraptured by what I was seeing – heck, I’m certain I clapped more than once. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, I wonder what she is thinking? At the films close, as I wiped a tear away – especially after the changed context Lantana scene – I turned to see what her reaction was. She stood up, not to leave, but to clap and give the film an ovation. We both stood, watching the end credits roll – with the films referenced in the film being categorised by the Prime Minister they were released under – and then left into the daylight. I wish I could have heard her thoughts about the film a day later.
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