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Love unites two Afghanis scarred by the legacy of war in Dennis O'Rourke's film, writes Steve Meacham in the Sydney Morning Herald

16 January 2006

The title came first. During a flight from Australia to London to meet a commissioning editor, confessed "maverick filmmaker" Dennis O'Rourke came up with an engrossing phrase for his new project: land mines - a love story. "I blame it on the bloody champagne, the altitude and all those Vanity Fair magazines," jokes O'Rourke, who makes films about "people who live on the periphery".

The phrase, however, wouldn't go away. During the next 12 months he was able to raise funds based on that title and his track record, particularly the AFI award he received for best director for 2001's controversial Cunnamulla.

But where would he find a true romance to do justice to the grisly subject of land mines? "I went off to find my story," he says. "I spent time in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia" - countries bedevilled by, arguably, the most indiscriminate weapon devised. He met "lovely people" who told him about their harrowing tragedies. O'Rourke's method of working differs from most filmmakers. Other than using a translator, he works alone on intuition and intimacy. And this time, "no light bulbs went off ... nothing happened that made me feel I was part of a magic carpet ride".

Then came September 11, 2001. "Two planes flew into the World Trade Centre," he says. "America invaded Afghanistan and routed the Taliban. I knew I had to go."

O'Rourke arrived alone in the shambolic danger of Kabul in March 2002, deliberately eschewing official channels. On his first day he was about to buy a phone card in the central bazaar when he saw "a blue puddle on the road with a shiny plastic leg protruding out". It was a female beggar, anonymous in a brilliant blue burqa.

Ignoring the advice of his translator, O'Rourke ordered the driver to stop the car so he could speak to the woman. "I had no idea what lay under that burqa," he says. Nevertheless, he set up his equipment. "She looked straight into my camera and said, 'My name is Habiba. I'm 18 years old.

I lost my leg and I beg to support my family.' "

The scene soon turned ugly. "A man waving a Kalashnikov was saying it was terrible that foreigners were able to film Afghani women like this," O'Rourke says. The interpreter begged O'Rourke not to be reckless, so he left as a crowd gathered. By the time he reached his hotel he knew he'd found his story. "It was Habiba."

The next day they searched for her and when they found her, O'Rouke asked if he could go back to her house to meet her father and brothers. "I just assumed she was single. I still hadn't seen her. She was still just a burqa and a disembodied voice."

Habiba allowed them to drive her home. When O'Rourke followed Habiba into her house there were two incredible twists. "She was greeted by her three young children and - unprompted by me - she took off her burqa," he says.

"She looked straight at me with this deep, shining intelligence and beauty."

No doubt Habiba is a beautiful woman. "It is not the beauty of a glam mag," O'Rourke says, "but the transcendant beauty of someone who has suffered but has retained so much love and goodness."

Later O'Rourke teased out Habiba's story of how she stepped on a Russian-made mine when she was 11 while herding the family cow near her village in the Shomali Valley. Her left leg was later amputated above the knee. She thought she would never marry or have children, until she was courted by Shah, a former mujahideen, who was also the victim of a land mine. A cousin called them "two flowers from the same garden".

Both are illiterate and have known nothing but war and poverty their entire lives. Yet in O'Rourke's sensitive account - which, in its longer cinematic form, won last year's AFI award for best documentary - the couple provides perhaps the most eloquent and passionate testimony ever filmed of the need to rid the world of these awful weapons. Their relationship, moral dignity and ability to create beauty out of evil shame the leaders of countries that refuse to sign legislation banning mines. A love story, indeed.

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