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Andrew Urban interviews Dennis O'Rourke about Land Mines - A Love Story

24 May 2005

Dennis O'Rourke took his camera to Afghanistan to shoot Landmines A Love Story, not knowing in advance what he would film; but when you're making films about the real world, that's the best way, he tells Andrew L. Urban: take the risk.

Dennis O'Rourke's latest film was literally born in the air, some 10,000 metres above sea level as he was flying from Sydney to London for discussions at Channel 4 about his previous film, Cunnamulla. He was grazing the papers and magazine on board, when he had what he calls a "counter-intuitive idea for a title: Land Mines A Love Story." He had been ruminating on various world issues (like how aid is delivered) that were erupting on the pockmarked face of the world, and landmines was amongst those, even though he knew no more about the subject than the average person who follows world news.

At his Channel 4 meeting, after the discussions about Channel 4's interest in Cunnamulla were completed, he was asked - in the tradition of such meetings - what he was working on next. "And I said, without hesitation, as if it were a done thing, with absolute confidence, Land Mines A Love Story." Channel 4's interest was immediate, and O'Rourke set about putting together the project. Almost a year later he was just about ready to start pre-production when the world changed: it was September 11, 2001.

It was in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade towers on that day that O'Rourke saw an opportunity to go to Afghanistan, following the routing of the Taliban by US forces. "I had not considered going there at all," he says. "There are many countries which are littered with landmines, from Angola and Bosnia to Cambodia and others. My films always need intimate connections with the central characters and this was not a film I was going to be able to make under the reign of the Taliban. I was about to go to Africa..."

But with the Taliban gone, O'Rourke decided to go to Afghanistan and make the film there. It wasn't a question of researching or exploring: he was going there, and he was going to make the film. He felt as though there was something going on with this project, and you sense as he speaks about it that it's an intangible, fatalistic feeling, a feeling heightened by the events on the ground.

"if it's about the real world you can't know in advance what will happen"

"It may sound flip and irresponsible to start off a project in this manner, but if it's about the real world you can't know in advance what will happen. That's the beauty of life, it's so unpredictable. So it's not a matter of being rational, since it is largely irrational." O'Rourke's filmmaking style is to put himself in the place of the agent; as he says, "it's not me, it's not about me as the filmmaker .... Land Mines A Love Story is about 'them'..."; in these case an Afghani married couple with children.

It is the story of Shah, a former Mujahideen soldier, and Habiba, a young Afghan woman injured by a Russian land mine following the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. Shah, a cobbler, fixes shoes in a crowded bazaar while Habiba begs in the streets to support her family. There, amid the ruined city of Kabul, they meet and embark on an unlikely courtship. Overcoming the obstacles of religion and tradition in their search for love, Habiba and Shah show extraordinary bravery and morality in a world of sanctioned violence and lies.

To O'Rourke, the title made the film, and the film made the title.

O'Rourke went to Afghanistan without the safety net of advance knowledge or information: "I put myself at risk ... you won't catch me putting a dollar on a horserace, but in filmmaking I gamble with failure. Things happened to enable me to make the film in what was a short window after the fall of the Taliban, when things were in a state of chaos. It doesn't contain everything I wanted in it, but there are always practical reasons for that. It's about 'real' [he dislikes the use of the word 'documentary' with its baggage of expectations and traditions] and it's Habiba and Shah whose roles are crucial."

And what is he working on next? "It's a feature - I Love A Sunburnt Country," he says confidently, without hesitation. "It's about Australia seen through the eyes of ordinary Australian poets..." And he already has backers lined up.

(Land Mines A Love Story opens in Australia on May 5, 2005)

Published May 5, 2005.

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