Archival remix filmmaking offers great potential as a mode of historical discourse. As history scholar Hayden White argued in 1988, audio-visual media is one of the most valuable forms of “historical evidence” of the modern “epoch” (1193). White also suggested that audio-visual media’s increased presence in public life makes it historically useful not only as raw data but as a “principal medium of discursive representation” (1194). Archival remixing filmmaking takes advantage of audio-visual media’s indexical relationship to reality (Baron 3) and rich, affective capacities (Rosenstone 1179), and uses the filmic language of editing to organise evidence into an argument.
The 2018 archival remix film Terror Nullius is close to realising White’s ambition for audio-visual historiography. The brainchild of experimental artist collective Soda_Jerk, Terror Nullius is a 54-minute remix of 174 film, television, broadcast news and music video samples. The samples span from 1969 to 2017 and (bar a few outliers) are all closely connected to Australia. Soda_Jerk remix Australian media from different genres and time periods to address key Australian discourses such as refugee detention, Aboriginal land rights, white populism and toxic masculinity, producing historical discourses more akin to Walter Benjamin’s “historical constellations” than traditional linear cause-and-effect narratives (265). For audiences familiar with the texts Soda_Jerk sample, Terror Nullius provides a powerful commentary on historical events and how they have been mythologised by media into cultural identity (Buckmaster; Heller-Nicholas; Cox).
However, archival remix filmmaking’s reliance on audiences’ prior knowledge of samples can limit its potential (Navas 27; Baron 7). For audiences unfamiliar with the texts Terror Nullius samples and contexts it references, many of the film’s arguments are inaccessible. The nuance of its intellectual montage (Eisenstein 61) and witty détournement (Debord 110) are lost and some of the cuts and compositing are undetectable without prior knowledge of source material. Terror Nullius has still been successful in the international festival circuit, but most non-Australian reviews focus on the film’s technical feats or generalised interpretations of the film’s politics, rather than its specific interventions into Australian political and cultural history (Nicholson; Dobson; MacInnes; Brady). Like many archival remix films, Terror Nullius as it stands is limited in its capacity to function as the audio-visual historical discourse White advocated. History books, after all, do not expect their reader to already know the evidence and contexts they discuss and use citations and footnotes to direct readers to their sources.
Unmixing is an antidote to the exclusive scope of the remix. Unmixing identifies the origin of a remix’s samples and provides contextual information that clarifies the remix’s argument. While written analysis of remix films can, in theory, offer such information, videographic unmixing maintains the form, language and visceral nature of the original remix. This unmix utilises split screen, captions, key frames and sound effects to analyse Terror Nullius through the language of its medium. Drawing on Kevin B. Lee’s mode of “desktop documentary,” Terror Nullius: Unmixed employs digital aesthetics to emulate the “logic of the click and hyper textual trace” associated with archival sampling (Boon 143).
Terror Nullius: Unmixed focuses on a key three-minute scene in Terror Nullius that samples a dozen archival clips dating from 1981 to 2016. When a new sample appears, an excerpt of the original text is shown and, when relevant, additional news media that shows how the text links to specific events in Australian history. By explicating the links between texts such as Mad Max 2 (1981), Turkey Shoot (1982) and Lucky Miles (2007) and the 1979 oil crisis, the emergence of migrant detention policy in the 1990s, Woomera detention centre, the Tampa crisis, 9/11, John Howard’s 2001 election campaign, the 2005 Cronulla Riots, and the rise of Pauline Hanson, Terror Nullius: Unmixed provides the contextual information necessary to understand Soda_Jerk’s historical argument that Australia has a long-standing xenophobia toward non-white migrants.
Terror Nullius would lose much of its punch and humour if it paused to cite every source and context it references and potentially become too prosaic and prescriptive to convey a moving historical argument to audiences already familiar with its samples. This is not an argument to replace remixing with unmixing, but to encourage the unmix as an analytical tool and supplement for viewers who missed the nuances of the original remix. Terror Nullius: Unmixed models how, together, remix and unmix can realise White’s vision of audio-visual historical discourse in a way that is accessible for newcomers.
Baron, Jaimie. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. Routledge, 2013.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn. Jonathan Cape, 1970.
Boon, Marcus. In Praise of Copying. Harvard University Press, 2010.
Brady, Tara. “Terror Nullius: White Australian mythology pummelled on screen.” The Irish Times, 2019. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/terror-nullius-white-australian-mythology-pummelled-on-screen-1.3821846. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Buckmaster, Luke. “Terror Nullius review – dazzling, kinetic, mishmashed beast of an Australian film.” The Guardian, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/20/terror-nullius-review-dazzling-kinetic-mishmashed-beast-of-an-australian-film. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Cox, David. "Skippy and the Kuleshov Effect: Soda_Jerk's Terror Nullius.” Pure Shit Australian Cinema, 2018. https://www.pureshitauscinema.com/critiques/terror_nullius.html. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Kenn Knabb. Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014.
Dobson, Chris. “GSFF: Terror Nullius.” Take One, 2019. http://takeonecinema.net/2019/gsff-terror-nullius/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. “Soda_Jerk: Terror Nullius”. Artlink, 2018. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4667/soda5Fjerk-terror-nullius/. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Lee, Kevin B. Transformers: The Premake. 2014. https://vimeo.com/94101046. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.
MacInnes, Allan. “Rupture 2019 review: Terror Nullius.” The Georgia Strait, 2019. https://www.straight.com/movies/1250196/rupture-2019-review-terror-nullius. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Navas, Eduardo. Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. Ambra Verlag, 2012.
Nicholson, Ben. “Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2018.” Notebook, 2018. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/berwick-film-media-arts-festival-2018. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.
Rosenstone, Robert. “History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film”. The American Historical Review, vol. 93, no. 5, 1988 pp. 1173-1185.
White, Hayden. “Historiography and Historiophoty.” The American Historical Review, vol. 93, no. 5, 1988, pp. 1193–99.
Caitlin Lynch has recently graduated with a Masters in film studies from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Her research targets the intersections of history, national identity and cinema. She has published in Puratoke Journal (1, 2017) and Landfall Online (2019).