Terra Nullius

(Anne Pratten, Australia, 1992)


This important Australian film – not to be confused with either Terra Nova (1999) or Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius (2018) – has been restored and returned to public accessibility by Ronin Films. A trailer can be viewed at: https://vimeo.com/551684148. I recommend also consulting an incisive 1995 introduction to it by Carol Laseur, from the time of its initial circulation.


The images and sounds flash, and haunt us. Glimpses of horror that we can hardly face – but must face.


Isolation, alienation, the grinding boredom of socialisation into a culture that is not one’s own … and worse: self-harm, sexual abuse, the denial of a person’s true identity.


Here in this white family where the mother spouts banal, ineffectual platitudes of belonging, and the father is a faceless, sinister figure who looms outside the bedroom door at night.


In the tradition of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), Anne Pratten adopts an experimental film language for her 21-minute Koori tale: radical montage plus a corrosive soundscape of voices, noises, scraps of music.


It emerged from a remarkable early ‘90s moment of confluence among the student intake at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School: for instance, Jackie Wolf (formerly Farkas), director of Amelia Rose Towers and The Illustrated Auschwitz (both 1992), was involved in its cinematography (with Josie Keys) as well as its 2020 restoration. From the same group, Felicity Foxx (aka Fox or Wilcox) and Andrew Lancaster provided the music.


Every aspect of the personal and collective trauma evoked in Terra Nullius is implicit, and yet all too obvious: it is the electric shock of recovered memory, conveyed straight to our hearts, minds and bodies.


Only at the very end is there any possible scene of reparation, recovery, hope. The healing touch – from the adult version of Alice (Michelle Lacombe) to her own, younger self (Olivia Pratten) – is tentative, difficult. It’s many years ahead of a similar conclusion in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2010).


There’s still so far to go, for all of us. But Terra Nullius is a gem of Australian film history and culture, with a vision that is even more penetrating today, almost three decades on.

© Adrian Martin July 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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