Britsh filmmaker Jess Dickenson documents her transforming journey across the Outback in her new documentary, "The Dust Never Settles." What began as an experimental film project, ends up transforming Dickenson and encourages us to also get lost in the feeling of being completely separated from the familiar. The film is available to view now on SnagFilms (and below).
What it's really about: "In 2004 my boyfriend Spenny and I left the UK for Australia with the simple intention of seeing as much of it as we could. Beginning in Sydney, we worked for a year to save up enough money to buy a 4WD and a video camera. We took the seats out of the back, replacing them with a bed and some camping gear and headed north. Fourteen months and 50,000 km later we returned to Sydney with about 12 hours of footage and a very mangled vehicle. The film is about our incredible experience, although it’s not a video diary. I have tried to remove us from the film as much as possible to allow the viewer space to imagine the journey, retaining the focus on the landscape and people. On the road I was very aware that it was a definitive time in our lives and a unique travelling experience as we were away for so long and covered so much distance. So while parts of the film are funny there is also this pervasive sense of nostalgia for time passing, eventually to be lost forever, which is enhanced by the beautiful soundtrack from Australia’s The Dirty Three. I guess I wanted to immortalise our experience, and to share it, and as a result the film has ended up being quite emotionally charged. The little wild horse who pauses to look back while crossing our lonely desert road still chokes me every time."
On the influence of film school on her work: "I did a degree in Film and Video at a small college just outside Brighton where we were encouraged to approach film-making in a very experimental way. Ben Rivers used to come and teach us sometimes and I worked on a 16mm project with him. It felt really exciting to learn that you could realise your own ideas and develop a visual language without relying on large budgets or the standard conventions of film-making, which I have always found quite uninspiring. I love the ethos of independent cinema, going out there without a lot of equipment or a film crew and just getting on with it."
What inspired you to make this film? "Well, I guess the journey itself inspired me to make the film. And the people we met were too fascinating to not make a film about! In Australia there’s all this space and people can really carve a niche for themselves, living exactly how they want to in the middle of no-where. They can go off the radar in a way that British people would find very difficult to do. So you come across these die-hard, unconventional characters living in the most unimaginable places. A deserted asbestos mining town, a house built in the middle of a crocodile infested river, a guy who seceded his farm from the mainland and created his own Kingdom within Australia. Being from a small island like Britain the vastness is very difficult to comprehend. You drive for days without passing another vehicle, and there are life threatening consequences if you break down in the wrong place. Yet these resilient folk have embraced the wilderness and are living by their own rules."
Her outside influences: "I love the epic cinema of Tarkovsky, and watching his films as a student made me re-consider the way a film is put together, particularly the use of time within a film’s construction. I get bored by special effects and fast editing and I guess he represents the antithesis to modern commercial film-making. Werner Herzog is a hero, and I also love the Maysles brothers. Choosing an interesting subject matter and allowing the characters space to evolve on camera, to speak for themselves without the director imposing their ideas or a pre-conceived structure and then allowing the film to evolve further during the editing process is a valuable and rare approach to film-making."
On the arduous filmmaking process: "The journey itself was a real challenge, it was a long, long time to be on the road away from home. And we had to stop wherever we were whenever our money ran out and find work to save for the next part of the trip! I began filming in 2005 and the film was completed in 2010, so it was a real labour of love getting this project finished. Returning home to the UK without jobs, money or anywhere to live was hard. Finding the time to complete the final edit around my day job was also hard. But if I had to identify the single most challenging aspect of being an independent film-maker it would be trying to maintain self-belief – no one’s paying you and yet you are dominated by this desire to create work that you hope will find an audience."
What do you think SnagFilms audiences will respond to most in your movie? "I think the audience will enjoy being taken on a journey around a lesser-seen Australia, and I hope they’ll be as wowed by the astonishing landscape and wildlife as we were. They’ll meet characters who are are funny and endearing, real one-offs, and I’m sure they will appeal to viewers. My short film, "Helmut’s House" spotlights an 89 year old guy we met living in a hand-made house in the middle of a huge river and it won the No-Budget Jury Prize at the International Short Film Festival of Hamburg. Helmut appears in shortened and re-edited form in "The Dust Never Settles" – his story was so unbelievable that it needed it’s own space and he always seems to go down well at screenings."
What's Next: "I spent last summer filming at a tiny little front-room style pub in the east-end of London and I’m in the process of putting that together. It’s on the River Lea as it approaches the Olympic stadium in one of London’s poorest boroughs and it’s a fascinating location on the convergence of road, cycle path and marshland. The pub is dwarfed by a large housing estate against which it resembles a little tardis. There are some brilliant characters, some of whom have been working and drinking there for 25 years or more. I’m interested in the function of such places within communities and how people would feel if places like this ceased to exist – they are already becoming so rare. I’m undecided on the title at the moment but it should be finished by spring 2013."
[Full Disclosure: SnagFilms is the parent company of Indiewire.]