Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tales of Our Time: Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist

Thanks to his preparation for this film, James T. Hong is now a licensed fisherman in Taiwan. That would give him a trade to fall back on, if he were not so prone to seasickness. Nevertheless, his is determined to reach the disputed Senkaku no man’s land islands, with whichever nationalist group can reach its shores. Fitting in chameleon-like with each faction, Hong follows their demonstrations and high seas hijinks in Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist (trailer here), which screens today at the Guggenheim, in conjunction with the Tales of Our Time exhibition.

After WWII, the Senkaku Islands were covered under the American administration of Okinawa. Basically, the U.S. military just used it for bombing practice until returning it to Japanese control in 1971. Subsequently, both Taiwan and Mainland China claimed the remote islands. However, the ROC no longer formally disputes Japanese possession, whereas the PRC is cagey on the subject. It hardly matters. Nationalist groups from all three nations are more than willing to press the claims that inspire such circumspect caution in their governments.

Somewhat ironically, the People’s Republic activists now sail out of Hong Kong, because the Mainland authorities will just automatically chuck Diaoyu (as they call the Senkaku Islands) activists in prison. Of all the fake fisherman Hong spends time with, the Mainlanders probably get the most screen time, possibly due to their ability to cuss a blue streak when confronting various maritime authorities.

Oh by the way, a 1968 survey suggested there could be oil under them there islands. Yet, the activists seem oblivious to any strategic value the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyutai as they call them in Taiwan, might hold. It all seems to be about land and blood for them, sort of like a Frenchman discussing Algeria.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how easily Hong fell in with such disparate groups. Seriously, they do not seem to be the compromising types. Granted, the energy level of Terra Nullius rises and falls, but he captures some pretty nutty behavior. He also contributes to the lunacy with climatic gesture of grand futility worthy of Mads “The Ambassador” Brügger.

Presumably, Terra Nullius is intended as a cautionary critique of nationalism, but it is hard not to think a lot of trouble could have been saved if the U.S. military had just kept occupying the islands. We would still just be shelling the shellac out of them, so maybe we could have avoided the Vieques controversy too. It is somewhat inconsistent, even at a mere seventy-nine minutes, but its strongest sequences successfully marry the sensibilities of gonzo journalism and video installation art. Recommended for curious vérité fans, Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist screens again this afternoon (2/18) at the Guggenheim, free with Museum admission.