Goodbye to an interrogative eye

Dan Edwards: Obituary, Dennis O’Rourke, 14 August 1945–15 June 2013

Dennis O’Rourke (1988), during the making of Cannibal Tours, released as free content with permission of Dennis O’Rourke, photo Chris Owen & Camerawork Pty Ltd

Dennis O’Rourke (1988), during the making of Cannibal Tours, released as free content with permission of Dennis O’Rourke, photo Chris Owen & Camerawork Pty Ltd

I only ever saw him once in the flesh, but I’ll always remember Dennis O’Rourke sitting in the audience at an Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), dominating the room with his sheer presence. He wasn’t part of the panel that day, but when he put his hand up to speak, the entire crowd turned to listen. Provocative, emotional and fiercely intelligent, O’Rourke was always worth listening to—and always worth watching. With his death on June 15, Australia lost one of its most incisive and imaginative documentarians.

O’Rourke began his career at the ABC in the early 1970s, making his first documentaries in Papua New Guinea and tracing the initial years of independence for our northern neighbour. Several of these works, like Yumi Yet (1976), brought O’Rourke international acclaim.

Throughout the 1980s he explored the domination and exploitation of Indigenous peoples across the Pacific in extraordinary films such as The Shark Callers of Kontu (1982), Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age (1985) and Cannibal Tours (1988). Half Life is the most horrifying of these, with its images of children deformed by US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. But where contemporaries like Bob Connelly and Robin Anderson adopted a more detached, observational perspective in framing the legacy of colonialism, O’Rourke’s work was always distinguished by his reflexive interest in the act of representation itself.

Half Life, for example, sets its disturbing images of the effects of nuclear testing against US-made documentaries about the Marshall Islands from the 1950s. These films blithely described the islanders as “savages,” too simple to comprehend what was being done to their homes by the US military, and grateful for the medical testing to which they were subjected by a magnanimous US government. The jaw-dropping racism of these old documentaries makes clear that the exposure of the islanders to nuclear fallout was not an accident, as was claimed at the time, or even an aberrant lapse of respect for human life on the part of the US authorities. Rather, it was the logical outcome of an entire world view and attendant system of representation that defined white American ‘civilisation’ as human and Indigenous cultures as primitive, disposable leftovers of an earlier age.

The question for O’Rourke in all this was the place of his own camera. Could he position himself as a critic of an imagistic order that has always privileged the white, Eurocentric gaze? Or was he, as a white, camera-wielding Australian, part of the problem?

These questions lurk around the edges of films like Half Life, The Shark Callers of Kontu and Cannibal Tours, but the ambivalence of O’Rourke’s relationship to the documentary form developed into a full-blown crisis in his most controversial and best known film, The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991). In the aftermath of the breakdown of his marriage, O’Rourke set out to form a relationship with a Thai prostitute, paying her to participate in his film. Together they created a “documentary fiction” that placed their relationship at the centre of the microcosm of global inequality that is Bangkok’s red light district, where cashed-up white tourists enjoy cheap sex with impoverished women from Thailand’s rural areas.

Good Woman still has the ability to divide audiences more than two decades on. At the time, many were incensed. O’Rourke was roundly condemned in print, and sometimes in person, by festival audiences convinced that he had exploited his subject. The storm inspired a whole book of essays on the film and the controversy it engendered (The Filmmaker and the Prostitute, Power Publications, 1997). As Linda Williams points out in one of that volume’s most perceptive pieces, many of the audience responses revealed far more about Western documentary viewers—and the unconscious assumptions informing our worldviews—than they did about the film itself.

Further controversy awaited O’Rourke with the release of Cunnamulla in 2000 (RT41, p14) a searing portrait of life in a small Queensland town. With its frank discussions of casual teenage sex, it made for another discomforting experience.

His last completed film, Landmines—A Love Story (2004), was more conventional in its approach, but continued O’Rourke’s fascination with the gap between the material reality of life in developing countries and the way we represent it on screen. The film focused on a couple in Kabul, both missing limbs due to landmines left over from Afghanistan’s many wars. Interspersed with O’Rourke’s observation of their daily lives are old military documentaries extolling the virtues of the landmine as a weapon of war.

No Australian filmmaker, and few abroad, have matched O’Rourke’s sensitive dissection of the relationship between rich Western countries and the world’s poorer nations. Uniquely among Australian directors, he also interrogated the long history of documentary images helping to maintain these global relations of power by fixing and dehumanising the racial ‘other.’ At a time when images are once again playing an integral role in demonising those from faraway places, and helping to justify spectacular cruelty in the name of “border protection,” we need critical filmmakers like Dennis O’Rourke more than ever. Alas, O’Rourke himself can no longer help us.

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 19

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

19 August 2013