Satire invites us to become conspirators in a joke made at someone else’s expense. As the usual targets are figures of power and authority it’s reasonable to assume the invitation will be accepted. The satirist adopts the Robin Hood position – defending the powerless against the few who seek to impose their will upon the many. Ridicule is a weapon that costs nothing and cannot be confiscated.
The satirist, as a subtitled Skippy says in Terror Nullius, must speak truth to power – but in a manner so palpably absurd it doesn’t generate lawsuits. At its most effective a victim that complains only looks like a wowser who can’t take a joke. As the satirist has already pricked the bubble of pomposity and self-importance, every attempt at self-defence merely confirms the worst impressions.
By these criteria Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts, is a classic piece of satire. A 55-minute mash-up of Australian film and television history, it looks for the unspoken assumptions about Australian culture embedded in the annals of popular entertainment, turning everything on its head. For each casual act of sexism, racism or homophobia there is a politically correct response, usually involving extreme violence. Did you ever want to see Linda Kozlowski put a bullet through loudmouth Mick Dundee? Fancy seeing Pauline Hanson cut down by a silver boomerang?
The interventions are so melodramatic and the left-liberal proselytising so heavy-handed, that the movie functions as a two-way satire. Skippy comes across as the most dogmatic of indigenous ideologues. In a scene borrowed from Lantana, Anthony LaPaglia bursts into tears after listening to a cassette recording of John Pilger’s purple-prose lament for the first Australians. In a revised sequence from The Babadook, Essie Davis is hysterical at the thought that her son might be gay.
In spoofing the dogmatism of the left along with the nastiness of the right, Terror Nullius makes an implicit case for a common-sense politics that values human rights, compassion and fairness.
All this makes it bizarre that the Ian Potter Foundation, which put $100,000 towards the project, announced that it “does not wish to be associated with the marketing or publicity promoting this production”. The cold shoulder came as a surprise to Soda_Jerk (sisters, Dan and Dominique Angeloro), and to representatives of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image who recommended the duo for the biennial Ian Potter Moving Image Commission.
In a press statement the Ian Potter Cultural Trust (IPCT) described Terror Nullius as “a very controversial piece of art”. According to the artists, the representatives of the Trust also accused the work of being “un-Australian” – a remarkable comment given that the entire feature consists of samples from Australian films.
To the best of my knowledge the Trust has neither confirmed nor denied the claim, which probably means someone actually said “un-Australian” but now feels it wasn’t a good idea.
The problem with calling something “un-Australian” is that it implies a cast-iron understanding as to what constitutes Australian identity, a concept we’ve been arguing about for the past 200 years. There is still no universally accepted set of values although there have been plenty of loudly proclaimed hypotheses. Once upon a time it was all mateship and machismo, today it’s multiculturalism. The common thread is that Australians like to think of themselves as fundamentally decent people: tolerant, hard-working, devoted to ‘the fair go’.
There’s nothing unusual about this. The Aztecs probably saw themselves in the same way, regardless of the blood sacrifices. The desire to think well of ourselves is a psychological necessity, but as more and more contradictions find their way into the mix, to retain that view requires an increasingly blinkered outlook.
Soda_Jerk capture these contradictions with precision during a sequence when the warriors from Mad Max 2 face off against two illegal immigrants from Lucky Miles. From behind his mask the Lord Humungus speaks those immortal words of John Howard from 2001: “We are a generous, open-hearted people… But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
The idea of a generous, open-hearted people that close their doors to suspicious foreigners didn’t seem to disturb the voters that re-elected the Howard government in 2001, although it feels a bit shakier coming from Lord Humungus and his hordes. This speech laid the foundation for the inhumane treatment of refugees practised by successive governments, culminating in the current policies of Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, a Humungus without the mask.
John Howard was a political opportunist who understood how to manipulate public fear and hatred to his own advantage, but he seems like Gandhi compared to cultural warriors such as Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, (or lately, Mark Latham). These are the types that like to call their opponents “un-Australian”. By invoking this vague but inflammatory charge the IPCT has aligned itself with the reactionary fringe of Australian politics.
Another figure quoted in Terror Nullius is mining heiress Gina Rinehart, telling us that “this age of entitlement and its consequences is creating problems for all of us”. If you want to make more money you simply need to work harder. Then there’s the Queen’s Bicentenary message, praising Australia as “one of the world’s most tolerant democracies.” It’s hard to listen to these speeches without being struck by the mean-spirited nature of the first and the patronising tones of the second. Nevertheless I don’t recall howls of outrage over the Queen’s comments in 1988, and even Ms. Rinehart’s appalling words found plenty of admirers in the mainstream media.
Terror Nullius makes it impossible to excuse these humiliating pronouncements. It reminds us that Australians have a reputation for being sceptics and anti-authoritarians, not toadies. Is it now “un-Australian” to challenge authority rather than kowtow?
The pious indignation of the IPCT is decidedly odd when every other cultural institution in the world is falling over itself trying to fund trendy, politically challenging works of art. None of these projects have the slightest impact on social or political injustice, but funding them gives donors that warm inner glow. Perhaps the Potter Foundation is simply pursuing a more devious marketing strategy, doing Terror Nullius a huge favour with its public denunciation. The Trust has obviously understood that while every contemporary artist craves success, best of all is a succès de scandale.
Published in Artist Profile, July 2018