Combining elements of documentary and fiction, blending factual interviews with an ominous post-apocalyptic tale, Reflections in the Dust follows a blind girl (circus performer and disability rights advocate Sarah Houbolt) who lives on the edge of a desolate swamp with her father (Robin Royce Queree), a paranoid schizophrenic clown. The film switches between talking head interviews and dramatic scenes to build a portrait of loneliness, isolation, and existential despair.
Recently the film made its world premiere in the Imagina program stream at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, considered Central and Eastern Europe’s leading film event. There, it attracted both controversy and praise, with Filmuforia singing out Houbolt’s performance as a “…tour de force that conveys the anguish of person lost in a world of voices and vague images…” and positioning Sullivan “…at the forefront of the next generation of Australian filmmakers.”
Following Reflections in the Dust‘s premiere, we caught up with Sullivan and Houbolt to discuss indie filmmaking, progressive cinema, disability representation, and just how this unique movie came together.
How was Karlovy Vary? What was the response to the film like?
LUKE: The response at Karlovy Vary was absolutely incredible. All three screenings sold out within an hour and audiences were floored by the film. A police officer who investigates child abuse attended our world premiere and told me after the screening that the film was the most authentic and honest portrayal of the subject he had ever seen, which was certainly a career highlight for me. Others said the film was one of the most boundary-pushing and powerful titles they had seen at the festival in over a decade. People even had to leave the theatre due to scenes being too confronting, which was incredible because my aim as a director has always been to push audiences to the limit and get under their skin.
Did you enter the film into local film festivals, and if so, what has been the response?
LUKE: Since pre-production my goal was always to premiere the film in the ‘Screenability’ section at the Sydney Film Festival, which is a section for films that feature disabled creatives in key roles. I thought the massive European festivals would just be too competitive. Strangely enough, the film was denied by Screenability, despite there not being a single Australian feature included in the section, and accepted into the vastly bigger Karlovy Vary Film Festival. This confused me, but I definitely wasn’t complaining!
As a whole, I think the Australian industry has a very long way to go before it is progressive and diverse like Europe. Here, government bodies decide what they want and don’t want you to see… and it’s always the safe option. They just give a platform to the same old people who they know can produce the same old comfortable and predictable films. They don’t actually care about diversity or progressing the art form. They are scared and don’t want to take risks, which is why I think audiences are taking less interest in Australian films. It’s a shame.
Sarah, how did you become involved in Reflections in the Dust?
SARAH: I was approached by Luke, who told me a bit about the film and asked if I would like to audition. I had to think about it for a little while to see if I could fit it in to my schedule, however, when I also received the audition notice from a few others who I respected in the industry, I thought, “Yes!”.
It was great to have a lead role in a feature film, and I was really intrigued to see the final product, and how my unique look contributed to the creative vision. We really need more diversity on screen, so it’s particularly exciting to receive jobs like this.
This descriptor on IMDb reads: A chronicle of the relationship between a paranoid schizophrenic clown and his blind daughter. How does it encapsulate the film, and what else is there to it? Is it a two-hander? Are there cinematic or art forebears to this film?
LUKE: Reflections in the Dust is an innovative mix of both documentary and fiction. The documentary component is simply me interviewing my actors, Sarah and Rob, in a studio setting; asking them candid questions about life that range from ‘When did you lose your virginity’ to ‘What’s the worst nightmare you’ve ever had?’ to ‘Why don’t you believe in love?’.
The fictional component of the film follows these two as they play a paranoid schizophrenic clown and his blind daughter struggling to live on the edge of a desolate swamp in a post-apocalyptic world. It is an intimate, primitive and incredibly confronting character-study that is very difficult to watch, but rewarding if you are brave enough to make it to the end. The events within this fictional story are shaped by Rob and Sarah’s emotional reactions to my real-life questions in the studio; making for an immersive, mind-bending and ultimately terrifying experience that explores inter-generational mental illness and child abuse.
I don’t believe there has ever been an Australian film made that infuses reality and fiction quite like this. You genuinely don’t know if what you are witnessing is real or make-believe; it completely messes with your mind and has already shocked many people.
Luke, how does this storyline relate to you on a personal level? And Sarah, was it easy to go along for the ride? What was the shoot like?
LUKE: Throughout my life I have witnessed people love those around them so much that it has turned them into monsters… and I wanted to explore that in my work.
SARAH: Despite the confronting subject matter, it was a surprisingly fun shoot. Although there were long shoot days, everyone was professional and dedicated, and we all got the job done.
Luke, could anyone else but Sarah have played the character in your film?
LUKE: No. Sarah owns this role. She brings a level authenticity, emotion and relatability to the character that is truly the heart of the film. She is one of the most talented and courageous artists I have ever met.
Sarah – can you tell us about your disability and how is it integrated, or not, into the film?
[NB: Sarah is blind and has Hallermann Streiff Syndrome]
SARAH: What I really enjoyed about this film project was the clarity and access which was a fundamental part of the process. I could openly discuss what I needed to make the filming a success from my end, and it was a no-brainer for the crew to address, because they weren’t afraid, they listened and worked from a framework of accessibility being a simple production element rather than an overwhelming, unfamiliar burden. For example, what I need sometimes is the crew to tell me where to look, because I don’t often see exactly where the camera is pointing. This takes two seconds to do, and they did it. Simple stuff that makes all the difference, and is easily achievable in the film industry.
Luke was great – we discussed whether I needed a minder for the project, and it turned out that I didn’t, because the crew were all on board with explaining where things were located, what was on the table for breakfast and lunch, and any obstacles on the path to the film set etc. It’s not hard to be inclusive if people are aware! In terms of integrating my disability into the film, I think my look was beneficial to the story and the character, and it wasn’t particularly a disability role, so I drew more on my identity as a woman rather than a person with disability for this role.
That said, you may see my character hold things closer to her face than usual, as a result of my own habits according to my limited eye sight, but I reckon this only adds to the style of the film. It becomes an asset.
What do you hope for the film, and what is in the works for it in terms of people in Australia being able to see it?
LUKE: The Backlot Films will be releasing the film in Australian cinemas this November and I couldn’t be more excited. It is going to be historic. This is the next generation of renegade Australian filmmaking – a truly inclusive, powerful and authentic story untouched by bureaucracy – that will hopefully resonate with audiences around the country. If the reception at Karlovy Vary was any indication, I truly think it will be like when people first saw Mad Max or Wake in Fright, and were captivated by the courage, rebelliousness and magic of Australian cinema…