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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Two Situations Add Meaning and Nuance to the Term Controversial

Two recent developments in the Australian movie industry indicate just how fleeting success can be. By a special correspondent.

In Australia, some things are sure things: the desert will be hot, someone somewhere will sing Waltzing Matilda every day, Aussies will be proud of their national uniqueness (footie, anyone), all things Vegemite, and we Aussies will play pokies and other casino games at our favourite Aussie online casino.

Terror Nullius
This 55-minute film by Dominique and Dan Angeloro, who call their enterprise Soda Jerk, is far from standard film fare. It incorporates bits and pieces from film and music video, cutting out from one and attaching it to another to create what Dan and Dominique call “the intersection of documentary and speculative fiction”. It might seem an odd juxtaposition of genres but, in fact, it has been tried before albeit not nearly as imaginatively as in Terror Nullius.

Several decades ago, Orson Welles—the famed American film maker, known especially for Citizen Kane, which for decades was considered the best film ever made until technology and real life turned it into a rather dull 1940s flick despite its cinema graphic innovativeness—made a film called “Fake”. The basis of the film is that movies are fake. He took from the art world to show how fakery is all around us: many great paintings are “faked” so well that only the very best art critics can tell the real from the fake.

In 2004, the American film maker Spike Lee, in an interview before a very important American baseball game, if there is such a thing, said that sport is far better than film because “it can’t be scripted”.

Terror Nullius, by its odd juxtapositions taken from real films and “rearranged” to create entirely new scenes and images, demonstrates that in the modern, hyper-technological world, even scripted artistic presentations can’t be scripted!

Two years ago, an autistic girl from Northern Ireland and her school choir sang a version of Leonard Cohen’s immortal song Hallelujah in which they changed some of the lyrics to fit a more Christian theme. The first verse “I’ve heard about this baby boy, who’s come to us to bring us joy” is clearly a Christmas reference and proves that even a song many consider the best song ever written cannot be scripted.

Meaning of the Name
The name of the film itself is a play on words that conjures up a unique image. Terror is an obvious reference to fear and the suddenness with which life can change. Nullius is a combination of the term “null” and the term “nihilist” or nihilistic. Thus, Terror Nullius has a political edge that at least one of its sponsors was offended by.

It isn’t exactly clear what Dominique and Dan have in mind with the title. Are they saying that terror is nihilistic? Are they saying that terror is the nullity of nihilism? Are they saying that terror is the result of excessive nihilism? Or, are they simply playing with words?

Politics cannot be Scripted
Soda Jerk was originally awarded $100,000 to develop an artwork from the Ian Potter Cultural trust whose grant was made possible through the Moving Image Commission which had been established to fund projects by Australian artists in the middle years of their careers.

So far, so good.

The day before Terror Nullius was to be shown for the first time, the trust pulled out of having any connection to it going forward in the marketing and distribution of the film. The trust was offended by the film’s controversial nature. This is certainly a blow to Dan and Dominique but they are not bowed by the controversy over whether their work is controversial. The two defended their work as starting necessary yet uncomfortable conversations.

The political and controversial images in Terror Nullius refer to LGBT issues, refugees and other asylum seekers, and other sensitive topics. The section that references land rights may be even more controversial than Soda Jerk might have intended given the recent decision in South Africa regarding land rights.

The semi-animated film Dora, the Explorer was set to be filmed in Australia but then a controversy (yet another one of those) threatened to kill the project. The Australian Treasury often gives film makers a reduction in taxes amounting to some 16.5%. The producers of Dora, the Explorer wanted the reduction for this film to be 30% and Treasure Scott Morrison said no. The project seemed doomed until Queensland decided to “contribute” to the tax benefit to Paramount and the project was reborn.

Queensland will benefit by having production take place there. Many small businesses and individuals benefit from large scale movie production so Queensland felt it was in the interests of the local economy to add a share to the state’s tax benefit.

Success is Never Guaranteed
These two examples show how individual professionals living and working in out of the way places, small businesses, and even small countries can be beholden to much larger enterprises for the small amounts of money they need to stay afloat financially. One minor misstep may be disastrous if it causes investment or other financial support to go elsewhere.

The Australian film industry is far more dependent on the Americans than the other way round so we make concessions that perhaps others aren’t expected to make. Similarly, financially strapped artists may be compelled to express the views of their patrons in order to be able to develop their art.

Aussies have long been known for their indomitable spirit. These two examples won’t dampen that. Nevertheless, it is maddening that the Aussie spirit is challenged by stronger forces in so many different ways.

Published March 21, 2018

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