White Australia is a prime target for satire. You don’t have to dig particularly deep to found countless examples over the last few years of Australian politics to find examples of the deeply-rooted nature of our nation’s racism, sexism and homophobia. Our political instability feels like an aftershock from an increasing public recognition of our inherent ideological pollution clashing with a political class content to blithely celebrate surface-level Australiana without any sense of perspective.
Our politicians indulge in reviews of ‘religious freedom’ that endeavour to further enshrine extant homophobic legislation in law, while trumpeting divisive and harmful marriage equality plebiscites. The leading party votes in favour of white supremacist motions in the Senate while exhibiting a flagrant disregard towards indigenous incarceration and abuse – and that’s not even scratching the surface of our treatment of refugees. Our deputy prime minister is accused of sexual harassment while women are murdered daily by their partners, yet productive policy seems impossible.
All this means 2018 is perfectly positioned for a film like Terror Nullius. A collage of (mostly) Australian films and television by ‘art collective’ Soda_Jerk, Terror Nullius refashions our cultural artefacts and ephemera into a searing critique of Australian hypocrisy. It’s toured film festivals this year to widespread acclaim, playing Brisbane earlier in the year at Queensland Film Festival, and returning with two screenings at BIFF. Having seen clips and read glowing reviews, I expected a truly vital document of our modern nation.
Unfortunately, what I was treated to failed to live up to the hype. Terror Nullius certainly addresses the core failings of modern Australia, chronicling the aforementioned sexism (most prominently through the figure of once-disgraced, now-celebrated Mel Gibson), racism (showcasing indigenous Australians and asylum seekers) and homophobia (weaving Priscilla and Please Like Me together) in a crowd-pleasing mashup. The environment gets a look-in too; there’s enough animal carnage here to feel like a remake of Long Weekend (which, of course, makes an appearance).
But good satire is more than plastering messages on a screen for an audience of converts. Good satire makes you feel uncomfortable; Terror Nullius is pitched primarily at middle-class left wing viewers (guilty) and allows them to exit with their opinions cheerfully reinforced while laughing (just a shade too loud) at all the references they understood. Meanwhile, those inclined to challenge these messages – whether through dyed-in-the-wool conservatism or ‘she’ll be right mate’ obliviousness – are unlikely to walk out thinking they’ve seen anything more than engaging propaganda.
While I didn’t hate the film – if nothing else, it’s a breezy 55 minutes that oft impresses with its juxtapositions – my issues with it can be boiled down to a single diagnosis: it’s too fucking obvious. Soda_Jerk opts for an overtly comedic editing style (occasionally obscured by an oddly languorous pacing, presumably inherited from the sedate rhythms of the Australian New Wave), which tends to over-emphasis every joke and every critique. There’s no subtlety that would leave you contemplating the issues or editing after the fact, but rather an attempt to earn a quick gasp or giggle that’s soon forgotten.
The overtness of the political messages – look, Pauline Hanson, Tony Abbott and a Southern-Cross-tatted John Howard are at the helm of The Road Warrior’s horde of barbarians – is perhaps best suited to an installation, as have, for instance, screened at the Sydney Film Festival Hub at the past. For a captive audience, it’s a bit much. Nor does it help that what Soda_Jerk are doing, in many instances, are taking the subtext of the sampled films and simply underlining, highlighting and capitalising them. Classic Aussie films like Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock are already critiques of Australian masculinity and whiteness, respectively, making their inclusion feel superfluous.
Certainly, this is a more effective – and accessible – medium than a dry video essay identifying these themes, or a John-Pilger-esque-documentary relentlessly unpacking our sins as a country. Perhaps I’m projecting, but the waves of praising crashing against Terror Nullius’ shores seem to come from the exact audience already aware of – and concerned with – Australia’s fundamental flaws. I don’t mean to get all Helen Razer on you, but it’s not hard to imagine a better version of Terror Nullius that acts as more of a call-to-arms; less preaching to the converted, more evangelising them to actually do something about our fucked-up nation rather than laughing about it at a film festival.