I’m finding it hard to catch my breath, and it’s not because of the woman who is expertly restrained in BDSM bondage ropes on my screen.
With a combination of deft camerawork, powerful sound design and suffocating underwater footage, director Cloudy Rhodes manages to create a feeling of claustrophobia I didn’t think possible in just 12 short minutes. Set in a dystopian world on the edges of the raw Australian coastline, Deluge follows three brave women who rise up against their cult-like community and expose abuse. With the help of strong female leads in Sophie Lowe (Beautiful Kate), Skye Wansey (Top of the Lake) and Kayla Donaldson, Cloudy has succeeded in creating a cinematic ode to female strength in the face of sexual abuse. Funded by Create NSW and produced by Dollhouse Pictures, Deluge will premiere for the first time as part of Sydney Film Festival, and we caught up with Cloudy to get a sneak peek into her incredible new short film.
How did the idea for Deluge first come to you?
Jessica Carerra—the film’s producer and co-founder of female lead production company Dollhouse Pictures—came to me with the script written by Llewellyn Michael Bates, a writer with a disability who has such a unique perspective. The powerful feminist sentiment and redemption really excited me. We developed the script further to incorporate themes and visual elements I wanted to explore, like introducing a post-climate change dystopia and setting the film on the coast. I’ve always been fascinated by cults and rituals, and had just seen an exhibition with BDSM bondage rope tying, which I thought would be a really interesting layer to add to the world we were creating; a way to play with the idea of submission and domination and our relationship to the patriarchy. It was a really a collaborative process made possible with the support of Create NSW.
You manage to sustain an emotionally charged tension throughout the film. What camerawork and stylistic choices did you rely on to create this?
I wanted to create undercurrents of horror in the film, and a sense of claustrophobia to intensify the experience of the women’s trauma. We shot everything really tight and handheld, and I used abstraction throughout to morph reality and the psychological interior world of the characters. I also worked with an incredible sound designer, Paul Shanahan from Final Sound, who created a soundscape that morphed breath with waves, heartbeats, and the visceral sounds of violence to create an esoteric, dreamscape-style tension that sustains the film.
The film is set in an incredibly beautiful, yet raw location. Do you think being a surfer allows you to be more at ease shooting in these environments?
The first time I read the script, I imagined it set on a wild and rocky coastline. The location of Bombo Quarry in New South Wales was harsh and the shooting conditions were physically challenging, but it felt important for the story. Being a surfer, I’m able to negotiate the natural environment and am always drawn to coastal landscapes. I wanted to visually and thematically explore the ocean in all its power and beauty. The word ‘deluge’ is used symbolically, considering a new wave of consciousness arising from female empowerment. Setting the film on the coast describes this connection between women and nature, and also feels personal to me as a surfer.
The film’s themes and costumes definitely have a dystopian feel to them. Did you draw any inspiration from other films or series in this same genre?
I always like to draw inspiration from different mediums, and for Deluge I looked to contemporary installation art and fashion. I wanted to create a dystopic reality with a distinct aesthetic beauty, looking at artists like Rita Minissi (Self and Other) and the Virtual Embalming of Michele Lamy. The costumes were inspired by an early Yeezy collection and Rick Owen’s shows. I worked with designer Elizabeth Gadsby from Sydney Theatre Company and artist Garth Knight.
Deluge puts a main character with an intellectual disability at the forefront. Do you think there’s a similar move within the industry towards inclusive filmmaking?
Yeah, totally, and we all need to be pushing for it. As a non-binary, lesbian filmmaker who has experienced prejudice first hand, representation and positive narratives around marginalised people are the most important thing to me, and ultimately what motivates me to make films. It’s inspiring to see so many filmmakers motivated to bring social issues to the forefront of their work. Film is a great representation of the changing times.
You’ve mentioned that Australian director Justin Kerzel has been a mentor to you throughout the filmmaking process. For other aspiring creatives, what would you say is important to look for in a mentor?
Mentors are really important, particularly when you’re in an early stage of your career. For me, it’s about surrounding myself with people that I admire and that push me. People that know more than you and can answer the tough questions, particularly when you need guidance when you’re not always sure what you are doing. Filmmaking is really hard and vulnerable and it’s so important to have support and people you trust around you.
Why was this such an important story for you to tell?
There is such an urgency for films that represent minorities. This film tells the story of a hero with a disability alongside empowered female characters. It’s a story about female endurance and bravery and the power harnessed in rising up and speaking out against abusers. Deluge has such a powerful feminist sentiment of redemption and resilience, which is so intrinsic to the female experience. Stories belonging to minorities and marginalised people liberate and empower these groups by validating their experiences.
It was an amazing opportunity being able to work with Llewellyn—an incredible writer with a disability—and Kayla Donaldson, who plays the film’s hero and who has down syndrome. Disability is massively underrepresented on screen, and Screen NSW has been really proactive in supporting these stories and minority groups. The statistics around abuse towards women with an intellectual disability are so shocking, and I want this film to help raise awareness around the issue. Being involved in inclusive filmmaking is really what drew me to Deluge.