A contradictory art

Tim O’Farrell talks to Dennis O’Rourke

Landmines—A Love Story

Landmines—A Love Story

It has become a cliché to describe veteran documentary maker Dennis O’Rourke as a “controversial” filmmaker. He welcomes the tag, but not its negative implication: “In this frightened country of ours, some people use the word controversy as a pejorative term; to me it’s not a pejorative term, it’s the most apt adjective to apply to an artist.” O’Rourke’s record of commercial and artistic success, passion for the art of documentary and ability to speak frankly qualifies him to provide a unique anatomy of contemporary documentary practice.

O’Rourke believes that an aversion to revealing uncomfortable truths lies at the heart of a particular malaise: “Sad to say, most documentary films are bogus. The documentary does attract a certain kind of earnest artist manqué. They’re less concerned about the art, which is where the true revelation can occur, than in being on the right side of things, and making statements to the converted. But what they never allude to and inscribe in their work is the fact that there’s always a contradiction, another side to the story. It’s almost like you’re supposed to be a social worker with a camera.”

After the altercations surrounding The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991) and Cunnamulla (1999), nobody will mistake O’Rourke for a social worker. While his latest work, Landmines–A Love Story, is destined to be less of a hot button film, it remains topical and urgent. It is one of a spate of recent Australian documentaries connected to Afghanistan. Others have including The President versus David Hicks (directors Curtis Levy, Bentley Dean, 2003, RT63, p23), Molly and Mobarak (director Tom Zubrycki, 2003, RT60, p15), Letters to Ali (director Clara Law, 2004, RT64, p20) and Anthem (directors Tahir Cambis, Helen Newman, 2004, RT62, p18). Each of these films tangentially links Australia with the Afghan war or the oppression of the Taliban regime and the consequent refugee crisis.

While O’Rourke likes some of these works, he says they’re different from his because the subjects are “already media types in an external situation”, allowing viewers to still think of Afghanistan “as a place where life is so repressed, and not quite as human as we know it.” In contrast, in Landmines O’Rourke was “able to destroy that whole stereotype of what it means to be an Afghan man and an Afghan woman.” Adhering to a template he has developed over the past 2 decades, mixing intimate portraiture reliant on interviews with observational footage, Landmines evokes a strong sense of personality and place. The film was shot in Kabul immediately after the American invasion of Afghanistan.

On his first day, O’Rourke came across Habiba, a burka clad woman with a prosthetic leg, begging in the streets. Shrugging off his translator’s attempts to divert him, O’Rourke made contact with her. Thus began a collaboration which led into Habiba’s home where she could remove the burka and talk intimately about love, men, family, politics and the day her leg was blown off by a Russian landmine.

According to O’Rourke, he didn’t begin with the intention of having a female protagonist. “I didn’t know what sort of a love story it would be. All I had was the title. I thought that with such an amorphous title it could end up being a triptych, because there’s love of different kinds. The Russian and American military love their landmines, then there’s all the love in ordinary people like the teachers in the de-mining classes.”

Ultimately though, it became Habiba’s film. O’Rourke’s depiction of her is loving, but in no way anodyne. He reveals a feisty, flesh and blood woman who occasionally goes crazy when stuck at home with the kids, gets lippy with a policeman trying to move her on while she begs, and glumly suffers a lecture from a health professional about the need to re-train or find a job. The image presented as the camera pulls back from this final encounter achieves a special resonance-–Habiba’s interrogator and her colleagues are all amputees. It’s a moment that recalls the level of surreal pathos in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar (Iran, 2001) when landmine victims rush across the desert to collect limbs parachuting from the sky.

Of all O’Rourke’s work, Landmines… most resembles Half Life, his 1985 film tracing the legacy of American H-bomb tests in the Marshall Islands through a synthesis of interviews, and observational and archival footage. We see Soviet landmines being assembled and laid, surgical operations to save legs torn apart, and US cluster bombs being dropped. Perhaps the most mind-boggling moment, reminiscent of Dr Strangelove, comes when an American military official acknowledges an unfortunate oversight that has seen the US dropping food packages the same colour as cluster bombs. Framing this material with glimpses of mine awareness classes for young Afghans and interviews with Habiba and her husband moves Landmines beyond any narrowly political agenda.

Habiba’s husband Shah, an ex-Mujhadin soldier, is nothing like the conventional image of a rabid ideologue. Like Habiba, he has never been to school and earns a pittance repairing shoes on the street. Yet he is capable of calm reflection on Afghanistan’s history of being traded between, as O’Rourke puts it, “so many dirty hands”, and the responsibility of all parties for the devastation wrought by landmines in his country.

Summing up the film’s appeal, O’Rourke observes: “This couple are so interesting. Wouldn’t you want to have them at your Saturday barbecue? And the sexuality that subsumed that house–they were a sexy couple.” If that’s more compelling than controversial, it was reassuringly provocative to hear O’Rourke say towards the end of our interview that documentary “does attract, especially at the level of academia, a certain level of really anal aficionado.” I’ll wear that like a badge of honour.

Landmines–A Love Story, director and producer Dennis O’Rourke, 2005, distributed by Ronin Films. Landmines premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in February and will be released in cinemas nationally on May 5.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 25

© Tim O'Farell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005