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How Soda Jerk Turned US Politics and All Your Favourite Movies Into Suburban Stoner Musical 'Hello Dankness'

Screening at Dark Mofo and Sydney Film Festival, Soda Jerk's first film since 'TERROR NULLIUS' is another stunning sample-fuelled piece of political art.
By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
May 18, 2023
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When TERROR NULLIUS roared across screens in 2018, it remixed, repurposed and recontextualised Australian cinema and television's familiar sights and sounds with the nation's political reality, all to create a pointed portrait of the country today. The ochre-hued terrain, the famous faces, BMX Bandits-era Nicole Kidman, the Mad Max franchise's road warriors, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Olivia Newton-John in her Grease leathers and the Rage intro — that and more was spliced into "a political revenge fable that takes the form of an eco-horror," as artist duo Soda Jerk describes it. Also featured: footage from 1988's bicentennial celebrations, snippets of Tony Abbott's speeches and examples of Mel Gibson at his abhorrent off-screen worst, to name a mere few of the film's melange of clips and sources.

The result was not only a stunning piece of political art, but one of Australia's best movies of the past decade. It's also exactly what Soda Jerk do — and spectacularly — in their sample-based brand of filmmaking. Where TERROR NULLIUS traversed home soil, the pair's five-years-later next effort Hello Dankness turns its attention stateside. Co-commissioned by the Adelaide Film Festival and Samstag Museum of Art, it too is an experience that makes its audience see a wealth of recognisable imagery with fresh eyes, surveying glimpses of American suburbia to carve into the carnival that is America's political landscape-slash-hellscape between 2016–21.

Ambition clearly isn't a problem for TERROR NULLIUS or Hello Dankness. Using hundreds of sources, with Hello Dankness featuring more than 300 film and TV clips, plus around 250 audio grabs, having an impact isn't a struggle, either. The former was called "unAustralian" by one of its funding bodies, ridiculously so. The latter enjoyed its international premiere at the 2023 Berlinale and just won the Best Narrative Feature Award at this year's Atlanta Film Festival. It "feels like some kind of stoned fever dream," Soda Jerk note of the movie's success so far. Next, Hello Dankness has stops at Dark Mofo and the Sydney Film Festival in June.

This time, Soda Jerk have made what they dub "a suburban stoner musical rendered in the form of a cybernetic Greek tragedy". Here, everything from The Burbs and Wayne's World to Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and The Social Network dance together — plus American Beauty, Friday, Napoleon Dynamite, This Is the End, Euphoria and PEN15 as well — alongside reminders of America's fake news-, conspiracy-, meme-, pandemic and culture war-ravaged society. That's where Donald Trump's Access Hollywood tape and Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad come in, too. The soundtrack: songs from Cats, Les Misérables, Annie and The Phantom of the Opera, as everyone's favourite movies get the second life that no one other than Soda Jerk could've ever dreamed of to unpack a deeply polarised country and period.

"There is no right way to inhabit the film," explains Soda Jerk, chatting with Concrete Playground about the movie's inspirations, ideas and process ahead of Hello Dankness' upcoming Aussie screenings. "There are many lulz to be had, but it's also an unsettling and weirdo ride. We've been genuinely floored by the kind of psyched enthusiasms it has received so far. Some of the screenings have been wild, almost grindhouse vibes," the pair continue.

"But we're equally fond of one online hater who wrote that there are some things you should never have to see in your lifetime: one is how chicken nuggets are made and the other is Hello Dankness."

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ON DECIDING TO MAKE HELLO DANKNESS AFTER TERROR NULLIUS

"Hello Dankness emerged in 2016 from a feeling of disbelief at the surrealness of US politics that was palpable at that time. There were Democrats eating babies, pedophiles communicating in pizza code and presidential pee-pee tapes. Conspiracies like these have always existed in the skanky corners of the derp web, but now they were circulating on boomer media sites like Facebook, Fox News and CNN.

It was as though all the soberness had been sucked from reality and we had emerged into a stoned new world. So Hello Dankness really evolved as an attempt to document this sense of unreality, the raw feeling of it, and also what it might obscure or reveal about the shifting power contours of this moment.

So we began Hello Dankness in 2016 and continued to research it concurrently throughout the two years we were making TERROR NULLIUS. When we wrapped TERROR NULLIUS in early 2018, we shifted to developing Hello Dankness as our sole focus. We spent four years working with ridiculous intensity on Hello Dankness from 2018 to late 2022.

The adjacency of the two projects no doubt played a role in shaping their confluences and differences. While each is distinct in tone and genre, they're both national fables that offer a rogue account of political history."

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ON USING SUBURBIA TO PROBE AND SATIRISE AMERICA'S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE

"Initially, we didn't know what form Hello Dankness would take — at one time, it was a cypherpunk political thriller based around Total Recall and 90s anime; at another time, it played out in the dystopian parallel universe of Back to the Future. But these kinds of sci-fi frameworks seemed to betray the sense of perverse ordinariness that also characterised the experience of the period 2016–21.

For while so much of the pandemic was deeply upending and unprecedented, it's also true that we mostly experienced it from the numbingly familiar vista of our homes. So, accounting for this domesticity felt important, and this is what initially drew us away from sci-fi world-building and towards the imaginary of American suburbia.

But we were also interested in placing the trad mythos of the suburbs under pressure, of thinking about the ways that this collective space has been reconfigured by the internet into increasingly privatised worlds and niche belief systems."

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ON THE PROCESS BEHIND HELLO DANKNESS — AND FINDING ALL THOSE SAMPLES

"We don't work in a linear way; throughout our process we're constantly shifting between scripting, editing and sampling, depending on what's needed at any particular moment. It's a difficult process to untangle, and plays out differently for each project. With Hello Dankness, we had the added challenge that we were attempting to capture the contemporary moment as the ground kept shifting beneath us. From the outset, we knew we wanted to cover the period of the Trump presidency — but as history got sucked into a pandemic sinkhole in 2020 we had to scramble to fold in new events as they unfurled around us.

We've been torrent freaks since Pirate Bay was a baby, so we've amassed a formidable archive over the past 20 years of our practice. This personal stash is usually the starting point for our research, and then we begin to target specific trajectories that we want to pursue in more depth. We're high-key obsessive about it, so if we're doing a deep dive into netsploitation flicks, we'll attempt to track down absolutely every source that's available.

But sometimes the best samples emerge from happy accidents, so we try to leave room for looseness, too. There is definitely something contingent and compulsive about sampling, like there­­ is with gambling. So much wasted time among sudden staggering windfalls.

We're always out there in the trenches, digging for infinitively obscure and unlikely things we might not have seen before. Somehow though, the core samples that end up making their way into the project are usually ones we have a history with. We're like some kind of homing pigeon in that sense, always finding our way back to what we're already intimate with. We just can't seem to fight it."

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ON MAKING A STONER MUSICAL — AND ALSO A GREEK TRAGEDY

"Stoner films and musicals made sense because they are genres that traffic in strange contortions of the everyday. Early iterations of the project also leaned heavily into the janky aesthetics of online culture and led us down many k-holes into YouTube Poop, shitcore music and advanced meme magic.

Some of that still remains, but as we progressed the post-internet affectations became less literal and more encrypted. We also had an ongoing fixation with Greek tragedy that ended up shaping our conception of the characters as myths and masks."

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 ON THE ESSENTIAL CLIPS THAT HAD TO BE IN HELLO DANKNESS

"Often, the things we fall hardest for are the documentary artefacts. They're really at the centre of the way we work, and what we're trying to do, which is a kind of a contorted historiography in a sense.

So with Hello Dankness, these artefacts included things like Alex Jones' InfoWars rants, Trump's Access Hollywood tape and Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard commencement speech. The Pepsi commercial was also very pivotal for us as a kind of muse for the whole project.

Then there are the sources that are released while we're working on the film, that can be pretty special too. This was the case with Euphoria and PEN15 — they knocked us over in a good way."

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ON UNPACKING POLITICS THROUGH POP-CULTURE SAMPLES

"What interests us is the idea of politics as a form of memetics, the way political messaging has begun to operate through a logic of virality and contagion. As a reality TV star, Trump's intuition for transforming reality into a compelling spectacle is undeniable. But there is also a quality to Trump that exceeds the image logic of TV.

Obama's cool demeanour and deft oration connect him to the era of television, whereas Trump's scattershot presence is more suited to the virology of the internet.

Trump is both shitposter and shitpost personified. We think of him as the first meme to hold office in the White House."

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ON TERROR NULIUS BEING CALLED "UNAUSTRALIAN" — AND THE NEED FOR FILMS LIKE IT AND HELLO DANKNESS

"We've been thinking a lot about the kind of cultural shifts that have occurred since all that happened with TERROR NULLIUS. It seems pretty clear that both artists and institutions have become even more risk-averse than they were back in 2018. The spectre of social media retribution hangs like a fearsome cloud over cultural production and we feel that this has had a narrowing effect on the kind of work that's being made.

It's also been gutting to witness the hideous creep of political art into content production and corporate brand collaboration. More than ever, we feel that artists need to remain committed to making difficult work, work that is pro-complexity.

If political art doesn't make people uncomfortable then it's not a protest, it's a parade."

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Soda Jerk's Hello Dankness screens at Dark Mofo and Sydney Film Festival in June 2023 — we'll update you with future screenings around Australia and New Zealand when they're announced.

Published on May 18, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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