Remember the scene from the original Mad Max, when a wounded Max Rockatansky lies on the road and Nicole Kidman from BMX Bandits arrives and jumps over him? Remember how Olivia Newton-John from Grease, glammed up in a leather jacket and skin-tight black pants, observed this interaction from the side of the road while smoking a cigarette?
Remember how one of the cars in Mad Max was destroyed by a group of angry women, including Lucy Fry from the Wolf Creek TV series and Jacqueline McKenzie from Romper Stomper? Remember how Essie Davis from The Babadook throws a match on the vehicle while Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths from Muriel’s Wedding laugh as it goes up in flames?
Of course you don’t. No such scene ever took place … at least, until now. Precisely this moment transpires in Terror Nullius, a weird, dazzling, kinetic, dizzyingly ambitious, sensationally mishmashed beast of an Australian film, one part video art installation project, one part revisionist documentary, and one part, I don’t know – LSD-infused YouTube compilation video?
Running for 55 minutes and screening at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image gallery, it is a rabble-rousing work of political satire from Soda_Jerk, a two-person collective comprising Sydney-born siblings Dan and Dominique Angeloro. The pair describe their work as existing “at the intersection of documentary and speculative fiction”, meshing together pop culture bits and pieces in order to create “a form of rogue historiography”.
The work has already sparked backlash due to its political nature – from its own funders, no less. Terror Nullius received $100,000 from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust as part of the Moving Image Commission in 2016, a 10-year initiative for new projects by mid-career Australian artists. On Monday, the day before the film’s premiere, the trust released a statement saying they did not wish to be associated with the marketing and publicity of the film, calling it “a very controversial piece of art”. The film-makers told Guardian Australia: “If ‘very controversial’ is another way of saying that the work is willing to start uncomfortable conversations, then we’ll happily wear it.”
Soda_Jerk’s approach, which has its roots in electronic music, involves mashing together bits of sequences, and/or scissoring out parts of the frame (or soundtrack) and pasting them into different compositions. Josh Thomas from Please Like Me, for example, is inserted into a scene with Terence Stamp from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, their two previously unrelated characters now discussing attitudes towards Indigenous rights.
When asylum seekers from Lucky Miles arrive on our shores in Terror Nullius, they are greeted by Russell Crowe’s violent skinhead, Hando, from Romper Stomper, who … well, you probably can guess what he does to them. This scene epitomises Soda_Jerk’s bits-and-pieces approach, which involves taking one form of media representation and contrasting it with another, in order to create new meaning – often making provocative messages about sensitive topics such as LGBT+ rights, land rights and asylum seekers.
Terror Nullius is a fiercely distinctive and interesting film, at once behind, ahead and of the times. Behind the times in that all of us have been sampling and rearranging media since we started consuming it: this is, to an extent, how our brains and memories work. Ahead, in that there’s nothing else quite like it, and the remix culture and era of IP appropriation it belongs to will hardly be disappearing anytime soon.
And it is utterly contemporary, given today’s media-converging times, with boundary-blurring initiatives such as (to name one of many examples) the Instagram account Call Me By Monet, which blends images from a recent film with Monet paintings. There’s also the director Steven Spielberg’s impending blockbuster Ready Player One which, as a core part of its premise, appropriates and regurgitates pop culture from the 1980s, continuing a trend of nostalgia-mongering prevalent in the recent Star Wars movies.
George Miller’s Mad Max films feature prominently in Terror Nullius. Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior, now with Pauline Hanson as one of his gang and a Southern Cross tattoo on the back of his neck, has something else on his mind this time around, when he delivers his famous speech. And wait until you hear what Furiosa and (Tom Hardy era) Max Rockatansky listen to in the middle of the desert – a strange and shocking moment of meta truthfulness.
You wouldn’t want to see a film like Terror Nullius every week, or even every month. But it’s exhilarating to see this kind of proverbial cattle prod applied to both the viewer and the medium. It plays like a kind of 21st century Beat poetry, with an electric, freewheeling energy obsessed with messing with craft and structure. Terror Nullius is arthouse and grindhouse; high art and low art; avant-garde and kitsch. It is also an ode to the film and television editor: their unequalled power in the creation and shaping of meaning.
And it is a crazy, punch-drunk, astral-projecting, bizarro roller-coaster ride through Australian cinema, with an unnerving ability to observe things that were never said and forge connections that were never made. The film celebrates and denigrates; it loves and hates. In one sense it is respectful of classic texts, because without them it would be nothing. And in another, there is a feeling the directors enjoy watching old sentiments burn to the ground, with a “nothing is sacred” ethos, all about challenging old narratives and asserting new ones.
There’s a lot to take in, even if the underlying sentiment is Warholian in its simplicity: about meaning in relation to context. In short, this is a hell of an achievement. And, dare I say it given Terror Nullius is almost entirely comprised of reassembled works, a fiercely original film to boot.