Soda_Jerk: revenge drives dazzling recombinations of favourite films

‘Eat the Rich, Repair the Past, Open Source Everything.’ Video artists Soda_Jerk talk about TERROR NULLIUS: A Political Revenge Fable.
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Typical Composite image from TERROR NULLIUS

The angriest and most political Australian film to emerge in these conservative times is, surprisingly, not strictly a feature or documentary, but a 55-minute sampled video artwork speaking directly to the history and mythology of Australian cinema itself and its racism, misogyny and homophobia. A new story is contructed, and it’s brash, brassy and cross.

TERROR NULLIUS (trailer), 2018 from Soda_Jerk on Vimeo.  

‘Our core values include: eat the rich, repair the past, open source everything, stay with the trouble, fight for the internet and take resistance to the streets.’ So said Soda_Jerk, the artists behind the work in an interview with ScreenHub about TERROR NULLIUS: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts. It’s is not a film you’ll see at the multiplex, but it’s being viewed and discussed widely, currently screening free for seven sessions a day at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI until 1 July), and also at the Sydney International Film Festival (final screening Monday 18 June), before taking off for Brisbane, Hobart’s Dark Mofo and Perth.

If you haven’t seen TERROR NULLIUS yet, do. It’s worth it alone for the pleasure of identifying snatches from countless Australian films both classic and contemporary, popular and obscure. Moments from hundreds of titles are seamlessly mashed up together in this subversive, exuberant romp that’s both funny and unexpectedly moving, especially in its final moments. It’s also a masterclass in skilled rotoscoping. The hours that must have gone into it!

You can hear Skippy the Bush Kangaroo speaking truth to power, see The Man From Snowy River winking at another bloke, and the mystery of the girls from Picnic at Hanging Rock is solved by their encounter with Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor. There’s a gay Babadook, a gleeful girl-gang bashing of the unreconstructed Mel Gibson, and a rampage of murderous sheep ripping through our politicians. The closing credits list every film sampled, next to the Prime Minister of the time. You’ll even hear John Howard’s xenophobic speech about Australia not being a soft touch coming out the mouth of Mad Max villain.

So who are the people so brave and brazen as to make these links, and to desecrate so many of our nation’s sacred cinematic moments?

Soda_Jerk are a collective of two Sydney-raised and now New York-based video artists working with sampled material. They are sisters Dominique and Dan Angeloro, who’ve been quietly building an international reputation as pixel pirates, samplers and culture jammers since around 2002. You can visit their website here or read an excellent interview they did with the Saturday Paper in April, or read a wonderful piece about where they fit in the tradition of Australian video art.

But the real reason you may have heard of Soda_Jerk probably has more to do with the outrage that followed the Ian Potter Cultural Trust’s withdrawing of its association from TERROR NULLIUS, a work it had commissioned and funded through the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission to the tune of $100,000 in 2017. Support was withdrawn because it was ‘a very controversial work of art.’ There were reports the word ‘UnAustralian’ had been used, despite the fact that the artists maintained their project had always been pitched as ‘a bloody, misbehaving, sample-based, arthouse-meets-grindhouse, political satire.’

Read more: Support pulled from un-Australian work on eve of opening

Of course the controversy has done nothing but good for Soda_Jerk and their latest work. But what this means for future submissions to the Trust – and the way other artists may feel invisibly constrained – is certainly an issue. The fact that ACMI stood by the artists and maintained staunch support is, however, reassuring, as is the fact that nobody seems to have been much troubled by the copyright issues of ripping and sampling without asking for permission, with Senior Curator Fiona Trigg maintaining that, ‘hese days there are so many works internationally that use sampling as part of the structure and I think people see the usage of films as fair use, as commentary; They’re not trying to appropriate other people’s work for financial gain, it’s in the service of a really clear critical argument. And I think copyright holders might be more pissed off if their work wasn’t included!’

Fresh off their hometown success with sellout screenings of TERROR NULLIUS at Sydney, Soda_Jerk took time to answer some of our questions by email. (They prefer to converse in the written rather than spoken word.) They apologized for the brevity of their answers, but were so eloquent we thought it best to publish most of them exactly as they were.

Q: How long has the idea for TERROR NULLIUS been brewing? And how long did it take to assemble and complete the film? 

TERROR NULLIUS has haunted our studio practice and research for more than a decade, ever since we made a short work called Picnic at Wolf Creek in 2006. That early six-minute work went some way to speculating what might have happened to the four white vanished school girls, and ends with a bus load of queers making road kill of Mel Gibson. But we always knew there was a braver, graver, political revenge fable that we wanted to make out of Australian cinema, and had been growing that idea ever since. And by 2016 we were feeling a growing urgency to respond to the increasingly sinister turn in Australian politics. So fundamentally the film comes from a place of rage, of being truly pissed that any kind of social justice is so far removed from the national agenda. 

When we were awarded the commission in late 2016, we only really had the earliest treatments for TERROR NULLIUS which were maps of historical vectors that we used as touchstones for shaping the narrative. Things like Gough Whitlam’s 1975 dismissal, the Tampa Crisis, the so-called Bicentennial Celebrations of ’88, the rise of Pauline Hanson, the marriage equality plebiscite and the MABO decision. By folding these events into the history of Australian cinema, we were interested in creating a form of rogue documentary which reconfigures the past and present in a potentially more productive way.

Q: Are there elves in your workshop, helping you with the sourcing, rotoscoping and rendering? And what is the most time-consuming or painful part of the whole process?

Ha!  Yes we must put rotoscoping elves on our Christmas wish list! It’s just the two of us who do all the sourcing, transcoding, editing and rotoscoping. It’s a full time studio practice that’s relentless, but we have always been happy to work stupidly hard for ourselves so long as we don’t have to work for anyone else. And we have a dream collaborator in Australian artist Sam Smith, who we work with in the final stages of the post-production and sound design.

The rotoscoping is probably the most punishing part, cutting each figure or element out of its original footage frame-by-frame. Our coping mechanisms include having one of those office cycles under our desk so that we can get movement in our knees while not leaving our computers for months at a time.

Q: There is some controversy around whether the Ian Potter Cultural Trust actually called the film ‘Un-Australian’ when they wanted to distance themselves from it. Do you have a statement to make on that?

There is nothing surprising about the Ian Potter wanting to disown that UnAustralian comment, it was such a bonkers thing for them to say in the first place. 

In order for an artwork to be political we feel it must have a potentially disruptive dimension, it should carry with it some kind of capacity to intervene or unsettle. Otherwise art would be indistinguishable from the commodification of politics that’s everywhere in contemporary advertising: fashion models holding protest signs or Pepsi rebranded as revolution.

Q: You are known as pirates and samplers who don’t ask for permission but take what you need for art’s sake. Was there any official help given to you by Australian filmmakers, film bodies or the NFSA in sourcing the footage? 

We source all the footage ourselves, primarily by purchasing blu-rays of the films, ripping them, and then using a complex coding process to cut and transcode all the data into a consistent ratio, frame rate etc. 

In some cases when we couldn’t commercially source a high-res version of a film, we did reach out directly to artists or filmmakers like The Kingpins or Margot Nash and Robin Laurie, in order to get the slickest file possible.

Q: As video artists, where do you see yourselves in relation to the broader Australian filmmaking community?

We’re interested in film circulation not distribution, and usually intend our work to screen across multiple worlds, whether that’s art worlds, underground cinema, overground film festivals, music scenes or internet communities. 

In terms of the Australian film context, we see TERROR NULLIUS as fitting within Australia’s incredibly rich and rad history of experimental film, in the giant footsteps of filmmakers like Tracey Moffat, Albi Thoms, Aggy Read and the Cantrills.   

Q: What’s been your experience of showing the work as part of the Sydney film festival? Is this a particular kind of audience or community?

As nerds for film growing up in Sydney, of course the Sydney Film Festival has always loomed large in our consciousness, and it’s been our dream for TERROR NULLIUS since its very inception. Think this is because of the special role of the festival for the Australian film community. After all, it’s the Australian film community who are our wider sphere of collaborators on this film. So it’s been a pretty special thing to be able to share the project with those in the audience whose work we have sampled within our own. 

Q: You’ve talked about ‘fighting the good fight’ with your work. Can you elaborate? 

We feel as though the proprietary control of image-culture assists the economic elite in maintaining control over the narratives of culture and history. For this reason, issues of shared culture and the fight for a cultural commons are at the very core of our practice and politics. We think of each of our works as probes designed to test the contours of the law and our projects are often concerned with the construction of counter-mythologies which trouble sanctioned histories. 

Q: This is very much a film about Australian identity and Australian cinema, for Australians. Do international audiences get it?

We did wonder whether the film would be too densely encrypted with a kind of Australian cultural and political specificity for International audiences to decipher it. But having screened it to really engaged and packed audiences in Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco and Cleveland, we’ve realised that it’s absolutely legible. Perhaps part of it is that there is such a global climate of apocalyptic conservatism, that the idea of a political revenge fantasy is something many people can relate to. And of course issues of colonisation, racism and misogyny are unfortunately so universal as to need no translation.

Q: Growing up in Australia as kids, what was your perception of Australian cinema?

We were so into movies as kids that we didn’t particularly discriminate one national cinema from the next, we dug it all. And a movie like Picnic at Hanging Rock was actually something that we were quite obsessed with as teens. 

But revisiting an Australian text like Crocodile Dundee more recently, we were horrified by the profound racism, misogyny and transphobia in it. It makes it so much worse that Tourism Australia just sunk $36 million into rebooting the character of Mick Dundee to brand Australia in his image.

Q: Who do you have in mind as the audience and what do you want them to feel at the end of it?

There’s a sense of poignancy and pathos that we hope is felt by the audience by the end of the film, but we’ll always be reticent to suggest what we want an audience to take away from it. We essentially think of the work as a kind of provocation or invitation to conversation, so we’re much more interested in opening up a space in which other people can speak and ideate.

And as for who we would like to see it, that is absolutely an open invitation. Within Australia it’s a real priority for us that the work reaches audiences beyond the art world and major cities, so we’re pretty focused on touring it to regional centers and remote communities.

TERROR NULLIUS is currently screening at ACMI, Gallery 2, seven times a day until 1 July. The film can also be seen four times a day at Dark Mofo, Hobart, 13-24 June 2018. Soda_Jerk will be in Hobart for the closing weekend of the festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram