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Review: 'A Mysterious Illness' digs up an unsolved Melbourne mystery

★★★★

A sign flanking the entrance to A Mysterious Illness warns of the haze inside, and just stepping across the threshold I can feel faux smoke settling on my tongue. My mouth isn’t even open, but I can taste it. Perhaps I’m imagining it, my senses prompted by the sign outside. I certainly can’t see a haze.

On one side of the black curtained corridor hangs a small sign containing a brief summary of the exhibit’s subject – a mysterious illness which plagued 57 people after an unidentified mist filled a Melbourne Tullamarine Airport terminal in 2005.

The intrigue amplifies as the hallway leads around the corner, the thud of my shoes echoing through the silence, to a small room. Inside is a wooden bench and a handful of large, black cushions in the shape of daybeds, assembled on the floor in front of an expansive, white screen.

Clouds of thick, purple smoke curl their way across the screen before the story of A Mysterious Illness transpires. Visually, the animated short film is almost as eerie as the events it documents. The day unfolds, beginning with patient zero, illustrated with distorted characters akin to that of The Sims, though slightly more disturbing.  

It’s hard not to feel a little on edge when audio recordings of radio calls between airport personnel and medical staff interweave with stuttering, atmospheric twitters which sound like creatures scratching in the corners of the room. Is it getting smokier in here? I still can’t see any smoke. It must be a placebo effect.

After eight hours and two inconclusive air samples, the insidious mist dissipates – taking with it almost all traces that such a bizarre turn of events ever transpired. The cause was never found and, despite the alarming realisation that an airborne attack could be so easily administered and so effective, the memory seemed to vanish from the heads of all but those felled by the mysterious mist.

Was this a terrorist attack? Was the mist intended to be deadly? How could an airborne substance make so many people so ill yet be entirely undetectable? Was the illness caused by the mist at all? The film’s creator, Daniel Jenatsch, seems to think that in the post-9/11 world, with airports stirring a sense of anxiety and hypervigilance, perhaps the mysterious illness was caused by psychological factors rather than a pathological attack. Of this, no one will ever be sure.

When the title of the film reappears on the screen, signalling its end, the faux smoke seems to be lining my oesophagus. I crane my neck backwards and inspect the cone of light filtering from the projector behind me. There appears to be some sort of smoke wafting in front of it, maybe I’m not going crazy. I double check that the ‘haze warning’ sign I saw upon entering actually exists on my way out, just to be sure I didn’t imagine the entire thing out of paranoia. It’s there and three hours later, I haven’t yet fallen inexplicably ill. 

A Mysterious Illness is running between Thursday November 8 and Sunday November 25. For more information, visit artshouse.com.au.