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27 April 2005

Ruth Hessey applauds the heroine of Dennis O'Rourke's latest documentary, Land Mines, A Love Story. [March 2005]

[Right: Habiba, no Virgin Mary, but a heroine of similar ilk, Afghanistan, 2000, filmed by Dennis O'Rourke.]

We are so used to the mute, televised images of the world's poor - even their screams are muffled by the voice overs and sound bites of the modern media. Perhaps because so many Australians have traveled throughout Thailand and Indonesia, the nation could relate to the suffering of fellow human beings in the wake of the recent freak tsunami. There was an inspiring outpouring of compassion.

But without a disaster involving tourist resorts, how often do we hear the voices of the poor rise above the global cacophony of advertising jingles and battle reportage? While the populace of wealthy countries worry loudly about wrinkles, reality TV and expanding bums, barely a whisper can be heard from those who need clean water, clean air, basic foodstuffs and clothes.

So it's not just unusual, but challenging to listen to an illiterate young woman - one who will never worry about wrinkles or fat, whose sole possessions are kept in one small tin box, who begs for her living in the markets of Afghanistan's dust caked capital, Kabul - as she talks eloquently and reasonably about the world we live in today.

With his customary yet unorthodox genius for a good story, Australian maverick documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke, charged off to Afghanistan in 2000, one of the most embattled countries on earth, to investigate what it's like to survive one of the 'first' world's great gifts to the 'third' - landmines. An estimated 10 million of them.

He has subtitled his latest documentary, Landmines, A Love Story , and it has the simplicity and power of one of the greatest stories ever told. The setting is noticeably biblical in look and feel. Habiba shares the Virgin Mary's virtues of optimism and modesty, yet she is a devout Muslim, and a mother of four by the age of nineteen. She lost her leg as a teenager. Her husband, Shah, who was a resistance fighter (mujahideen) during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has also lost a leg to a landmine. Later, the Taliban took their land, and the subsequent war took everything else.

O'Rourke allows his subjects to tell their story without frills, without pathos. "I planted landmines, and then I was blown up by one," Shah tells the camera with the clear eyed simplicity of someone who lives with a grave contradiction. Habiba recounts the day she strayed too far into the wrong field, trying to retrieve the family cow, without a scrap of self pity.

O'Rourke's films always travel the hard road. He loves the voices of the dispossessed - from the native populations of islands used by the USA to test atomic bombs ( Half Life ), to Thai prostitutes selling cheap sex to western men ( The Good Woman Of Bangkok ). In his tenderest film to date, O'Rourke is relentless with the facts, intercutting footage from Russian and American military archives, with a visit to the local midwife who worries that Habiba's fourth, unborn child, is too small.

But the film's greatest achievement is Habiba's relationship with the camera. Without knowing her own courage, and with genuine humour and good grace, she tells it how it is.

For more about Dennis O'Rourke visit

Ruth Hessey.

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