Reading Room > film > Carol Laseur > Terra Nullius

"Where You From?": Terra Nullius, Invasion of the Land, Invasion of the Body

Carol Laseur

Terra Nullius is a stark and confronting film. It seems like something of an understatement to gesture towards the text's powerful and thought-provoking use of associative montages here but it is, nevertheless, what I aim to do in this short talk. Firstly though (and briefly) I want to frame the discussion with regard to the social and historical screen representations of indigenous peoples by white Australians. Let's just say that past (and some contemporary) images of Aboriginal Australia have not been altogether favourable. Mainstream film and photographic practice has mythologised and stereotyped Aboriginality in contradictory and ambivalent ways. Ahistorical categories of the exotic, the romantic or the assimilated/anthropologised Aborigine have dominated our screens. 1 Thankfully, this is changing as contemporary filmmakers and artists, both black and white, attempt to redress this situation.

Terra Nullius is a twenty-minute film of the life of a young Koori girl, Alice (Olivia Pratten). We witness a reconstructed account of Alice's painful but compelling knowledge-accumulation about her Aboriginal identity. The source of this knowledge is (ironically) revealed through the structures of denial that are developed by Alice's foster family. The text pivots on the theme of dispossession and alienation. The notion of invasion becomes the film's double focus: invasion of the land/invasion of the body. In this respect incest works at every level in the text; it is sexual, emotional, social, cultural and political. It works to implicate itself at every stage of the young protagonist's development. For example, in the opening scene a sense of surveillance prevails with the camera's slow movement over the child's toys to the shaft of light and feet outside the bedroom door. A succession of quick images: a man's shadowy profile, an underarm, a bar of soap in a hand, intercut with the girl piercing her foot and packing broken doll-parts into a case are all suggestive of sexual/emotional tyranny. 2 Simultaneously, sound effects work to destabilise any notion of domestic harmony. Motifs of assimilation and alienation are produced by Alice voicing: "do this, do that, brush your hair, do your teeth, set the table, do this, do that". A highly fragmented yet frank account of incest is mobilised here shedding new light on the meaning of denial; particularly in terms of race and gender. The text's engagement with denial is at times overwhelmingly felt. So much so that one critic has maintained its "fragmentary glimpses, sharp editing and multi-layered effects dominate the subliminal effect of this film that render denial as an all-pervasive and over-arching thematic." 3 As in most short films this multi-layering of effects works to construct a complex, yet highly integrated narrative. Fragments of time and space are discontinuously fused in flashbacks and flashforwards providing visual templates for understanding the protagonist's subjective experiences. But it soon becomes clear that these stylistic aspects are utilised to reinforce the text's concern with social issues.

Five minutes into the film we see the initial 'discovery' scene on the beach where Alice is told of her Koori identity. 4 Here the beach location and message about identity become significant points to which the narrative returns at the end of the film. This segment of text develops a range of meaningfully-loaded signifiers through its use of intertextual referents. The disembodied male voice-over is indicative of how indigenous people were (and many would argue still are) treated by white Australia: always as 'other', foreigner or migrant. One example is the line about how the place has been "taken over by bloody wogs". The shot of Alice in profile is ironically skewed as she mouths the words to the romantic song Edelweiss. It says a lot about the subtle politics of this film that Edelweiss translates from the German as 'noble white'. So when asked by the woman in voice-over "where you from?", the social dimensions of race, place and colonisation are brought sharply into focus.

Linda Burney, speaking publicly on an Aboriginal way of being Australian, says:

Terra Nullius (the term) was the basis of the whole idea of White Australia. The point about White Australia that people need to realise is that it was - and still is - racist by definition (emphasis in original). 5

She reminds us that the White Australia Policy was not abolished until December 1972. The use of this term as the title of Pratten's short narrative plays on these racist definitions. And it is probably no accident that this film was made in the same year (1992) that MABO land claims were recognised and laws pertaining to the Native Title Act underwent change.6 As a title,Terra Nullius links the historical act of dispossession to its more contemporary usage, that is, the widespread recognition of the lie that it was based on. More than that, though, it signifies a dual relationship between the body of the indigene and a particular body of land.


Terra = earth/land
nullius = 'non-existent' inhabitants
terra = earth (mother)/identity
nullius = uninhabited/ belonging to 'no-body'


terra = terror
nullius = absence of identity/nothingness

So, although the text's title can be read as a pun on the literal signifiers of the term Terra Nullius, it is the intertextual function which holds the most interest for me in a generic sense. Here t-e-r-r-a becomes t-e-r-r-o-r: the horrifying experience of one girl's entry into an assimilating and colonising white family/social structure.

Terra Nullius deals with the trauma associated with what has come to be known as the stolen generation. 7 Throughout this short narrative we are reminded of the unconscious and brutal manifestations of colonisation. Not unlike the classical horror genre, Terra Nullius is jam-packed with references alluding to emotional blackmail, anxiety, stress and the tyranny of the repressed. Sonic effects clash and are mixed into an eerie soundtrack over repeated and overlapping images that blur into each other. For example, the fragmented rape segments early in the piece are accompanied by sounds of a whip cracking giving an historical context to the theme of exploitation.

Another striking feature of this text is the powerful implicit referencing to the unspoken in Australian culture. The film presents a dynamic juxtapositioning of images and sounds in discordant, fractured, isolated, repetitive gestures that work as more than a set of evocative or symbolic representations. Rather, the text hauntingly echoes a language of the unspoken: the stuff of nightmares and paranoid imaginings. In this sense, the language of Terra Nullius (a language that is struggling to be spoken, or is perhaps even truly unspeakable) is comparable to the genre of exploitation: a domain of popular culture in which the unspeakable, the textually deficient, the aberrant and taboo make up the psychic continuity of everyday life. 8

In Terra Nullius the way out of this "exploitation" scenario is positioned to coincide with the protagonist's realisation of her Aboriginality. The key moment of this realisation is constructed via a series of flashbacks towards the end of the film. They include: young Alice running along the beach, a shot of her in the toilet and the familiar opening repetitive shots in black and white of bedsprings, the tassels of a bedspread and a ball hitting a hard surface. This rapid sequencing of events is rhythmically interspersed with close shots of the eyes and brow of the older Alice (Michelle Lacombe) in a still gesture of realisation. Within this sequencing of past recollections there is a particular shot that cues us to the terror of incestuous relations, both personal and social, placing the subject in history yet transforming the memory of that history. In a shot from below we see a head and shoulders close-up of Alice in a darkened toilet. She rocks on the toilet seat, frantically chanting. These repetitions of movement and chanting act as a safety-valve because a sense of foreboding prevails in a confined spatial and temporal proximity. "Redback spiders, snakes and ants . . . . get in your homes, there's going to be a bomb, there's going to be a bomb, get in your homes" is rhythmically chanted. A reverberated sound score can also be identified, saying: "the process of eliminating the problem of half-caste Aborigines . . . ". It is at this point that events in history merge, as analogies between official assimilation policies and actual lived events are paralleled. The combined reference to atomic testing at Maralinga9 and to the memory of sexual abuse works to reinforce the devastating effects of colonial relations. The notion of violation takes on a dual significance: the abuse of the girl and the destruction of a particular site, the homeland of a group of indigenous people.

Now, returning for a moment to the chart, we can see how the term Terra Nullius is reinscribed by the film text by way of land/body, place/identity dichotomies. In the closing shots we see the union of the central characters. Young Alice runs along the beach and comes to rest in the safety of a circle of women. We can read these women as the extended female family of whom, up until now, Alice has been denied. Shot from above, this scene cues in associations of flight and freedom and the transcendental power of reunions. As the protagonists unite in a symbolic image of wholeness, the split in Alice's identity is healed. Here under the protective guidance of their elders they find peace: a sense of self and a place for the individual and the collective is reclaimed. This leads me to the film's epilogue which is "Dedicated to the Survivors". This final inscription works discursively on a two-fold basis. The protagonist survives a double fate; firstly, as an Aborigine and secondly, as an incest survivor.

My purpose in this paper has been to show how the text works off a number of issues interrogating any neat or sanitised version of autobiography, assimilation, colonisation, and the family.10 Terra Nullius is an attempt to redress the paucity of 'accurate' images of Aboriginality. Contemporary Aboriginal films, not unlike their literary counterparts (such as Sally Morgan's My Place ), work to redefine the dominant paradigms of race, culture and social context.11 Traditional notions of genre are transformed as autobiography becomes a form of radical historical documentation. Within a process of political agency, the personal becomes a vehicle through which expressions of autonomy and self-determination are made powerfully present on both a collective and individual level. The Koori filmmaker Destiny Deacon has welcomed "the polaroid camera as a medium that 'doesn't have any tricks', just the ones that families have'". 12 Anne Pratten's Terra Nullius exposes the tricks of the Australian colonial family.



1 See Karen Jennings, Sites of Difference: Cinematic Representations of Aboriginality and Gender, Melbourne: AFC, 1993 for an elaboration on the ways in which indigenous people have been represented in Australia's cinematic history.

2 The doll parts could be seen as a symbolic representation of Alice's split psyche or her own physical body that is violated by her foster father. The foot piercing relates to the trauma associated with grief and the grieving process. Tracey Moffatt also thematises this motif in her film BeDevil. See Carol Laseur, "BeDevil: Colonial Images, Aboriginal Memory" in Span: Yorga Wangi, Postcolonialism and Feminism, no. 37, Dec. 1993.

3 Taken from the video dust-jacket (Ronin Films, 1993).

4 See Ruby Langford Ginibi, My Bundjalung People, UQP: Brisbane, 1994. Ginibi writes on the importance of tracing one's roots: "In our Koori way, we all want to go back to where we came from originally, it is like a magnet that keeps drawing us to the places where we were born to find our extended families" (p.1).

5 Linda Burney, "An Aboriginal Way of Being Australian" in Australian Feminist Studies: Women and Citizenship, no. 19, Autumn 1994, p. 18.

6 It is interesting to note that Terra Nullius was not only made in the same year that Native Title Legislation was introduced in Australia but it was released in the UN Year of the World's Indigenous People. It was nominated in the categories for the Best Short Film and the Best Screenplay, 1993 Australian Film Institute Awards.

7 Langford Ginibi, op. cit., p.40.

8 See Adrian Martin, Phantasms, Melbourne:McPhee Gribble, 1994 (pp. 114-123) for the proliferation of generic hybrids.

9 Maralinga is a place in South Australia (ex)nominated by the authorities of the time as 'Terra Nullius' and subsequently used to test British atomic power. To this day the survivors have not been compensated.

10 In Australia at the moment, these categories are far from neatly constructed. An interesting case is the recent media coverage of the Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman and her display of dual nationality in the '94 Commonwealth Games. It has become a signifying moment in the Australian history of race relations as a positive and popular reconstruction of national identity. By comparison, the trauma imagery of Terra Nullius can be read as the underbelly of these relations. This is not to suggest that the former is positive and the latter negative. On the contrary, these differing textual inscriptions and their prescriptive generic modalities overlap in terms of their representative value systems. Both transgress that which cannot (or has not) been heard by that which is visible.

11 Morgan, My Place, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987. See also Kathryn Trees, "Counter-Memories: History and Identity in Aboriginal Literature" in Whose Place?: A Study of Sally Morgan's 'My Place', eds D. Bird and D. Haskell, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1992. Morgan is cited on the Terra Nullius video dust-jacket as saying: "Terrible things happen to you if you tell people what you are".

12 Deacon quoted by Kevin Murray, "Art Forums" in Broadsheet, vol. 23, no. 2, Winter 1994, p.22.

New: 16 May 1996 | Now 30 March, 2015