Monday, March 26, 2018


The lone cowboy in American Western genre televised to Australian audiences generally appeared from vast open ranges. He was an outsider, a gunslinger who heroically shot encroaching lower race immigrants before riding off into the distance (of course not all Westerns contained this narrative). In Terra Nullius (Soda_Jerk, 2017) a short excerpt of a stock man on a horse negotiating a steep embankment 'through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground', feeds into our mythology about Australian early male settlers as macho heroes who could muster the strength to negotiate uncharted land, epitomized in the words quoted above from Banjo Patterson's poem The Man from Snowy River (1982). This imagery of a man on horseback is juxtaposed in Terra Nullius with homosexual's having sex in dense bushland and a scene from Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee,2005) showing the Australian actor Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar), prompting viewers that the narrative circulates around two men (otherwise heterosexual) who engage in a secretive sexual liaison whilst herding cattle in Canada's rocky mountains. Both scenes challenge the stereotypical view of masculine identities as strong, heroic, oppressors.

Ang Lee often filmed the protagonists from a distance and dwarfed by the massiveness of the mountains he ensured that the untouched landscape remained a potent and abiding character representing alien outsiderness and otherness.
The strength of Terra Nullius is also its emphasis on landscape since Aboriginals were forcibly removed from country rendering them invisible in a continent declared nobody's land (terra nullius), thus accommodating those who could capitalize on it, such as the mining magnate Gina Rinehart who has a short cameo.
Indigenous Australians are coexistent and identified with country and in many film excerpts selected by Soda_Jerk, aboriginal invisibility is made visible in and through the land they have inhabited for over 60,000 years. They highlight Australia as one the oldest continents on earth and provide particular tableau's of the landscape focusing upon the diversity of its flora and fauna, particularly the Australian Kangaroo an indigenous species which has social, cultural and spiritual significance to aboriginal people. The inclusion of Crocodile Dundee and the television series Skippy the bush kangaroo enables them to underscore the brutal killing by male poachers of the species in their natural habit and to provide a not so subtle reference to the white fellas invasion and destruction of indigenous Australians. Ironically in the series Sonny the young protagonist appears to understand Skippy's clicking, hissing and grunting sounds as an understandable language, depicting hubris on the child's part to understand an indigenous animal. In one scene skippy's chirpings speak of our Australian obsession with the mythology of the missing white girls in (the novel and film) Picnic at Hanging Rock, when we might otherwise place significance on the removal of aboriginal people from that location to an aboriginal reserve in Healsville in 1856. Intrigue in regards to the white girls who vanished at Hanging Rock and the invisibility in this narrative of aboriginal people, the possessors and the dispossessed, is palpable and is revisited at the end of the film in which Miranda is shown in a prone position in a rugged and beautiful landscape that 'always was, always will be aboriginal'.
The inclusion of various scenes from Picnic at Hanging Rock reveal that Hanging Rock was used for recreation by white folk at the turn of the twentieth century and in this instance by schoolgirls on a picnic outing. However, historically Dja Dja Wurrung, Woi Wurrung and Taungurung tribes would gather at Hanging Rock (Ngannelong) for various men's ceremonies and the mystical/spiritual aspects of the rock contributed to their dreaming. We have to admit that mystique surrounds the school girls who disappear on Hanging Rock and when Edith says 'Except for those people down there we might be the only living creatures in the whole world' she represents the shortsightedness of the white settlers who made others not like them invisible. Whereas Miranda actually embraces the spiritual and philosophical problematics of invisibility and aboriginal dreaming when she states 'what we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream'.
Introduced and indigenous species in the film are highlighted by the inclusion of a scene from Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) a film which addressed the complexity of human relationships as well as a caution via the Lantana bush (a plant from the Americas and Africa) of the dangers of species proliferation.We might also consider that the three drag queens, one of them a trans-sexual in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are themselves a strange and alien 'species' walking on sacred ground in the Australian outback. An idea reiterated towards the end of the film with dancers who move to the iconic Goanna song Solid Rock. 'You're standing on Solid rock, standin' on sacred ground, Livin' on borrowed time and the winds of change are blowin down the line'.
Their walkabout, a right of passage in indigenous culture but also one for Priscilla who displays an unwelcome gender preference, is reflected In Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1971) in which a young city girl and her brother become stranded in the Australian bush when their father burns his car and shoots himself in the head. The children survive because they are aided by an aboriginal boy who helps them find shelter and sustenance. In this film the desert is a symbol of freedom and holds an otherworldly allure for the female protagonist who has experienced civil and 'uncivilised' society and where her nakedness induces a ritual dance from the young aboriginal boy overcome with desire. Sexual desire elicited from the emptiness of rugged and wild landscape is depicted in a close-up view of a girl's journal entry in Picnic at Hanging Rock which reads 'I don't want him to think that I'm just a rooting machine'. Men as sexual predators, brutal aggressors and racists is displayed by the inclusion of Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981), linking the teenage girls from Cronulla exploring their sexuality with the bloody riot against Lebonese migrants in Sydney in 2005. Scenes from Mad Max and Romper Stomper themselves bloodied accounts of male aggression also reflects endemic racist attitudes against those who come from different cultures as well as tragic brutality towards our own tribe as well as others.

Terra Nullus is an audio visual collage of Australian films and television by Australian art duo Soda_Jerk. I saw it yesterday. It is currently showing at ACMI, Australian Centre for the moving image, Melbourne, Federation Square.

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