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Through a Lens Darkly Catherine Keenan,
The Sydney Morning Herald

23 April 2005

Dennis O'Rourke rather liked the idea of arriving alone in Kabul with only his equipment, some US dollars stuffed down his trousers and a title for his next documentary - Land Mines: A Love Story .

He didn't have a subject, or any real plan for finding one, but that's part of his "technique". He has an almost mystical attitude towards filmmaking which involves plunging himself into difficult situations and trusting the magic will happen.

It's a very romantic notion, so it's no surprise when he quotes a line he attributes to Cervantes about always holding the hand of the child you once were, which I take to mean you should maintain an intuitive and wonder-filled understanding of the world. It's only later, over a second (or is it third?) glass of wine, that it occurs to me that O'Rourke is a kind of Don Quixote of the documentary world.

He doesn't look much like a knight - he's crumpled, with a ruddy complexion, big belly and watery, pale blue eyes - but he's certainly idealistic and stubborn and enamoured of a certain crusading idea of himself. Even over the course of lunch, he is both enormously endearing and immensely frustrating.

Like Cervantes's knight, O'Rourke is monomaniacal in his passions. He lives to make documentaries, and is best known for Cunnamulla and The Good Woman of Bangkok , both invariably prefaced with the adjective "controversial". Cunnamulla was controversial because it showed 13-year-old Cara Hearn and 15-year-old Kellie-Anne Allardice talking about the many men with whom they'd had joyless sex in their godforsaken country town. The Good Woman of Bangkok was even more controversial because O'Rourke paid to have sex with his subject, a Thai prostitute, then film her talking about her punishing life.
I must not lie about what I know.
Every time I finish a film that gets out there.
I'm quite good at house building.
My children. It's about seeing all my children stay alive and happy

Land Mines: A Love Story , in contrast, is almost disappointingly straightforward. On his second day in Kabul, the magic happened when he saw a woman begging in the street, a shiny plastic leg poking out from beneath her pale blue burqa. He got his translator to ask her a few questions, and watched the footage back at his hotel on his field monitor. "And it has a beauty and meaning, to me anyway, and transcendence. And I have goose bumps. And I think: 'I've found my subject.' "

Luckily for him, Habiba also had a love story to tell. Her husband, too, had lost a leg after stepping on a landmine while fighting with the Mujahideen, and O'Rourke's film is an intimate look at their impoverished lives squatting on the edge of Kabul. It is surprisingly morally unambiguous - few would disagree that land mines are abhorrent - and while David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz were critical of Cunnamulla , it's easy to imagine them liking this. "I don't know. It would be a bit of a worry if they did," O'Rourke guffaws.

He has always prided himself on being controversial; on being just that little bit out of step with mainstream morality. "Any artist, if they're not controversial, they're not doing their job. I detest the way that it is used perjoratively. I think it's a terrible reflection on certain aspects of our society. We're a frightened little lot, really."

Yet, in another typically Quixotic turn, he admits the controversies hurt him terribly. He'd just been through a marriage break-up when he made The Good Woman of Bangkok , and the furore surrounding it left him so depressed he was unable to work for five or six years. He also visibly bristles when I bring up Cara and Kellie-Anne, who claim they were branded "sluts" after Cunnamulla came out.

In 2003, the Federal Court ruled that they could pursue their claim that O'Rourke's conduct contravened the Trade Practices Act. I ask what has happened since and he turns instantly conspiratorial.

"All that stuff, it's still going on. I believe it will go on for years. It's a very complicated thing. And all is not what it seems, that's all I can say. If you think it's Cara and Kellie-Anne who are doing it, think again. It's not."

Who is it then? "Well, it's not for me to say. If you imagine them running this case themselves, well..."

He is, as always, only complimentary about the girls, saying he depicted them as "little heroes". He also says he can't be held responsible for a media frenzy that took him completely by surprise. Which is fair enough, to a certain extent, but the striking thing is that after all this time, he still seems genuinely perplexed by negative reactions to his portrayal. It's as if he really can't see any moral ambiguity in letting teenage girls commit their sexual history to the public record.

He is especially obtuse when I ask if, knowing what would happen, he would do it again. "Knowing what?" Well, knowing the negative reaction to the film. "What was the reaction? That's one aspect of the reaction. Many, many people have said to me, 'What's the problem?' When the film first came out in Cunnamulla, I met with Cara and her mother. OK! Fine! It was just later, when somebody got to them. Sorry. Anyway. It will all come to pass."

And yes, he would do it again.

"The one job I have to do, otherwise I'd better hang up my spurs, is always not to lie about what I know. I don't say tell the truth. I say not to lie about what I know."

At 59, O'Rourke has had three marriages, and recently started seeing a 37-year-old producer at the ABC. He has five children from two previous relationships, and talks about them often, with great affection. He has had many successes as a filmmaker: an AFI Award, the Sydney Film Critics Circle award for best documentary, the director's prize for extraordinary achievement at the Sundance Film Festival, the jury prize for best film at the Berlin Film Festival and, this year, the Don Dunstan Award for contributions to the Australian film industry.

A book has been written about the controversy surrounding The Good Woman of Bangkok , and the film has been on teaching syllabuses here and in the US.

He is building a house in Cairns, where he plans to live the life of a recluse. "Well, as much as you can as a father of five, with a lover."

But he likes to quote Les Murray about how creativity is the wound from childhood that never heals, and he certainly still sees himself as an outsider. He is a boy from an Irish working-class background who had an unlikely interest in books (his nickname at primary school was "The Prof") and educated himself. He has never been, and never wants to be, part of the establishment.

Which explains why he makes films about people on the margins. They may be about a prostitute in Bangkok or a beggar in Afghanistan, but as he puts it, he's really just making the same film over and over again.

"It's the one big idea that I've got in me about the world, and my vision of the world, and it's about the value of people who are on the margins and what they can tell us."

He captures them talking so candidly because, he says, they sense that he is one of them. "They see me as being a vulnerable person, which I am. But quite apart from that aspect of my personality, which I can't fully understand, there is my philosophical point of view that we are all very much frightened. We're all searching for meaning. We all want to be loved. That's it."

And there it is: another great Quixotic moment, when the renegade knight speaks with such disarming simplicity, it's impossible not to warm to him. I feel an uprush of empathy and suddenly understand why his documentary subjects tell him the things they do. We finish off the wine, and two hours after we sat down for lunch, he kisses me goodbye and ambles off down the road, a slightly shambolic figure, his glasses swinging on a rope around his neck. Off to tilt at windmills some more.

Land Mines: A Love Story opens in cinemas next Thursday.

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