Revenge Remix

Soda_Jerk talks about their new film, TERROR NULLIUS (2018)

Soda_Jerk, TERROR NULLIUS, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 54 minutes.

Soda_Jerk, an Australian two-person filmmaking collective that has been making sample-based features since 2002, describes their new work as a “political revenge fable.” The film, TERROR NULLIUS (2018), takes on settler colonialism, racism, and misogyny with a punk frankness that prompted one of its funders to pull their association with the project, calling it “un-Australian.” The film debuts in New York across two nights at Anthology Film Archives on December 14 and 16, 2018. Here, Leo Goldsmith talks with the collective about their new work, the ethical responsibility of sampling, and the relatability of revenge.

LG: The earliest works you sample in TERROR NULLIUS are from late ’60s Australian TV—specifically, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Was there an idea to start possibly earlier than this era, or was it important to start here?

SJ: Skippy’s a bit of a rogue ’60s sample, but in fact almost all the sources date from the mid-’70s onward. And our thinking here was primarily political rather than cinematic. In 1975, Australia’s most radical left-wing prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was forcibly removed from office through the intervention of the British monarchy. Like many, we see this as a definitive moment in Australian politics, where the shit hit the fan and never really stopped raining down. Most gutting of all, it put an end to the restitution of Indigenous land rights that had gained momentum under his leadership. So, we wanted to not only begin the film’s narrative with this historical moment but also use it to inform the time frame of cinema we sampled.

LG: That time period also corresponds with the emergence of Australian New Wave cinema. You also note—actually, Skippy does—that Peter Weir’s 1979 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, with its story of “the fate of these four fictional white girls,” is something of a foundational myth for Australian cinema.

SJ: Australians have long lost their minds over Picnic at Hanging Rock, endlessly debating what happened to the disappeared schoolgirls. But as Skippy points out, the cultural obsession with this fictional story is pretty disturbing when you consider just how little national discourse has been given to the very real “disappearance” of Australia’s Indigenous populations by colonial settlers. In particular, let’s not forget the legal vanishing act that was performed by Captain Cook when he declared Australia absent of inhabitants under the doctrine of terra nullius.

LG: Can you talk also about the trope of “nature’s revenge”? Kangaroos and sheep as anti-colonialist freedom fighters, sharks as anti-misogyny avengers: These visions suggest a need to retrieve or reroute the iconography of nature, but they also suggest that there’s a very close connection between the projects of settler colonialism, resource extraction, land appropriation, and racism and misogyny.

SJ: The idea of avenging animals was something we borrowed from the cinematic genre of eco-horror, which runs deep in Australian film. Within these texts, wildlife fights back against the human inhabitants who have disrespected and plundered their natural environment. And with TERROR NULLIUS, we were interested in applying this trope of animal revenge to a much broader spectrum of sociopolitical concerns that are also tied up with notions of land and territory.

The official trailer for Soda Jerk’s TERROR NULLIUS, 2018

LG: In what ways was it important for you to reference internationally well-known versus more locally specific films? Were you trying to balance the concerns of Australian and global audiences? I’m thinking particularly of working with the “gay” Babadook and also of ending with an image from Rob Sitch’s The Castle (1997), a very complex reference probably lost on a lot of non-Australians.

SJ: We definitely didn’t try to cushion any of the Australian cultural specificity for an international audience. What interests us about sampling is the question of how films operate as encrypted documents that carry traces of the hopes, ideations, and traumas of their particular context. Specificity is really where the heart of this project lies. Having said that, in this horrific global climate of hyper-conservatism, the idea of a political revenge fantasy also seems to be pretty legible and relatable for a lot of international audiences.

LG: You do make use of films that are not Australian, of course. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was this purely practical, or were there other intentions in doing this? Unless there’s an Australian Stranger by the Lake connection I’m missing . . .

SJ: The idea of adhering to a militant definition of national cinema seemed kind of turgid to us. So, we’ve freely sampled a couple of international films and a fair few from New Zealand, as a wink to the way that Australians are always trying to take credit for Kiwi talent.

LG: Can you talk about your approach to releasing/distributing your work, and TERROR NULLIUS in particular? This project began as a commissioned work, but you’ve been showing it in festivals too (and not just the usual “major” ones), and presumably you will—like your other work—put it online for free. Do you have a particular strategy with releasing new work? Or, to put it another way, what is most important for you in how your work is circulated and seen?

SJ: We’re big fans of the rowdy kinds of spectatorship you get with grindhouse cinema, adult film, or the peanut gallery of the vaudeville tradition. And this was something we were thinking about as we were making TERROR NULLIUS. So, while some of our other films were created specifically for the internet or museum installation, we’re committed to touring this work IRL so that people can experience it cinematically and collectively. In film festivals, micro-cinemas, academic conferences, art museums, drive-ins, community centers, queer spaces, town halls, wherever.

Soda_Jerk, TERROR NULLIUS, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 54 minutes.

LG: Where do you see this relationship between copyright and intellectual property in both making and distributing your work, in relation to TERROR NULLIUS? Of course, the idea of appropriation is complex in a settler-colonial context, and the notion that “indigenous people do not believe in ownership” has been used as cover to steal shit from native peoples.

SJ: We feel as though it’s important not to speak of Indigenous peoples in some kind of worldwide plural in relation to these kinds of issues. In Australia, there’s not one Indigenous population but hundreds of different language groups, each with their own unique histories and ideologies. As free culture activists, we’ve always been suspicious of the proprietary logic of copyright culture because it tends to enshrine the status quo and monopolize cultural narratives. But we absolutely believe that sampling demands an acute sense of ethical responsibility, and we do a great deal of research and consultation about the material we use. Something else that has really shaped our thinking around the Indigenous Australian politics implicit in TERROR NULLIUS is the text “Accomplices Not Allies.” Sometimes being an ally is just not enough; we need to be seeking out ways of working together that involve putting our own asses on the line.

LG: Can you talk about the reaction to your film in Australia, both from the Ian Potter Foundation, which called the piece “un-Australian,” and from those who have seen the work in the museum and festival context (especially in the case of small queer festivals)?

SJ: The whole idea of a boardroom of rich white suits gatekeeping what is “Australian” is pretty absurd, to say the least. And you know, the project wasn’t made for them. It was made for everyone who shares our sense of shame and rage at just how distant any kind of social justice is from the national political agenda. So, it’s a special kind of joy to be in screenings where audiences cheer and heckle at the screen. Or the thick silence that comes at a moment of heavy reckoning.

TERROR NULLIUS screens at Anthology Film Archives in New York on December 14 and December 16.