skip to content CameraWork - films about the real

The Age, Melbourne May 2, 2005

5 May 2005

Shattered lives
May 2, 2005

In Afghanistan, filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke found a love story amid the cruel legacy of war, writes Philippa Hawker.

'All my films start with a whim, one way or another," says Dennis O'Rourke. For his new work, the whim was a title that came to him out of the blue, during a long flight, as he was reading, "in that state of half reverie, when things take on a heightened meaning". Land Mines: A Love Story . It lodged in his mind, and soon after, when he was asked what his new project was going to be, he realised he had a name for it.

O'Rourke - an Australian filmmaker with a rich, often controversial body of work, whose documentaries have generally received that prized distinction, a theatrical release - then went in search of his film. He found some funding and support and threw himself into research.

"A good documentary," he says, "has got to be a journey of discovery. Some people like to map it out, but I don't. I wouldn't be able to make a good film that way. You need the sense of a gamble. You take a bet with existence."

His quest for his subject sent him travelling. "I went to Cambodia and integrated myself into landmine-clearing agencies. I did the same in Vietnam and Laos, and I was about to go to the heavily mined countries in Africa - Angola, Mozambique. I was trying to find the story, putting myself out there, waiting for something to happen, which is my method. But it didn't happen. The light bulb didn't go off."
Advertisement Advertisement

Then came the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, and, he says, "everything changed". After the US invasion of Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban, it was possible for him to enter the country and film. In Afghanistan there were 10 million mines, the legacy of more than 25 years of war.

Another whim. This time, O'Rourke decided to "go in cold", rather than make contact with anti-landmines groups or the United Nations. He organised a flight, found himself a hotel, a driver, an assistant, all in somewhat chaotic circumstances, and went to look for his story. He found it far sooner than he could have imagined.

The first day in Kabul, he recalls, he saw a woman in the street, begging - a woman in a veil. "I could see that she had a prosthetic leg, and I asked the driver to stop the car. I wanted to talk to her. I set up the camera at a respectable distance and said, �Please ask that woman what her name is, what she is doing here, how she lost her leg'."

The woman agreed to talk, but the filming caused quite a stir. As she repeated her answers, a crowd gathered, a man started waving an AK-47 around, the interpreter became anxious and the interview was brought to a sudden halt. O'Rourke gave her some money - "I needed to pay her. She was begging, after all" - and she left.

"I went back to the hotel. And maybe I was in a febrile state because I hadn't had a drink for a couple of days, but I looked at the 10 minutes of tape, and it had beauty and transcendence and meaning, and I thought, I've got my film."

It took several days to find the woman again. This time, she agreed to allow O'Rourke and his camera, plus the interpreter, to come to her house, to meet her family - her husband and her children - and to film her telling her story. At that stage, O'Rourke says, he still hadn't seen her face.

He wondered, at first, why she agreed to be filmed. Afghan friends were puzzled by her willingness to co-operate with him, and told him it was highly uncharacteristic of women in that society to agree to such a thing. "She was convinced," O'Rourke says, "that what we were doing was something that she was meant to do, with me.

"And it sounds self-serving to say it, but I genuinely believe that there is something miraculous about this film. All films are a miracle - when they work, of course but this is something else."

Land Mines: A Love Story plunges us, in a swift and immersive fashion, into the world of 19- year-old Habiba and her husband, Shah, a former soldier who had also lost his leg to a landmine. It shows us the nature of their relationship, and with haunting, often lyrical images, the conditions of of their daily lives.

Habiba talks, with expressive and vivid detail, of the moment when she stepped on a landmine and lost her leg. She remembers the day she convinced Shah that she had to go out onto the street and beg, to support the family, and was too frightened to speak, until she forced herself to say, "Help me in the name of God".

O'Rourke recorded these recollections alone with her, without an interpreter, barely aware of what she was telling him. It was only when he was back in Australia in the editing room, after receiving a detailed translation, that he realised just how powerful this material was.

"I knew she was poetic, I knew she was forceful, but I didn't know the full extent of it until a year after I filmed it," he says. "She is so self-knowing, so clear about who she is. Neither she nor Shah has seen the inside of a school, and yet they're both so eloquent."

The film is a love story, O'Rourke says, on many levels. It is, he says, about the relationship of striking warmth and intimacy, but it's also "among other things, about how much soldiers love their weapons".

In the quest for material to highlight this, he went to Moscow, where he found archival footage, the disturbing images of weapons, soldiers and bombs that also punctuate the film. "It was amazing stuff, but I couldn't use very much of it, because it was so overpowering. It didn't fit with Habiba, and the way she wanted to tell her story."

Land Mines is a love story, an encounter, a meditation, a form of essay. "Everything, including the archival footage, is meant to keep the film at the certain level of a dream state," O'Rourke says. "I'm not interested in a prosaic style of documentary filmmaking. I like the poetic style, where we're dealing with truths as opposed to facts, leading us towards moments of revelation."

< Press Clippings