Dennis O’Rourke: "I’m Going to Tell You a Story."


1 October 2008   Story by Rochelle Siemienowicz




    Image: Dennis O'Rourke

   Photo by Mark Rogers.

   © Camerawork Pty, Ltd


  As one of Australia’s most acclaimed and prolific documentary filmmakers, Dennis O’Rourke has led an extraordinary life. It took him a while to find his true calling. A university dropout in the late 60s, he travelled Australia, the Pacific Islands and Asia, working in jobs as varied as salesman, cowboy and maritime seaman. A self-taught photographer, he dreamt of becoming a photojournalist and got his big break in Papua New Guinea, where he landed the job of directing an official film covering that country’s independence celebrations in 1975. That film, Yumi Yet, wasn’t quite what the ‘Office of Information’ had in mind. The film lacked solemn narration; there was no sense of pompous seriousness. Instead, it was a joyous, poetic and wry celebration of a nation’s birth. O’Rourke is now pleased to note that last month, when Sir Michael Somare opened a new television station in New Guinea, Yumi Yet was chosen as the opening film.



     Image: The Good Woman 

     of Bangkok

     Photo by Dennis O'Rourke.

    © Camerawork Pty, Ltd     


From those first films in New Guinea (including The Shark Callers of Kontu and Yap…How Did You Know We’d Like TV?) O’Rourke roamed the region finding new stories. He found them in the nuclear-infected Marshall Islands (Half Life); the hidden problems of Aboriginal society (Couldn’t be Fairer) and in the girlie bars of Bangkok (The Good Woman of Bangkok). In recent years he’s found his material in racially divided small-town Queensland (Cunnamulla) and in dangerous post 9/11 Kabul, where he befriended a burqa-clad amputee (Landmines: A Love Story).


O’Rourke’s work reveals a true engagement with subjects both within and beyond Australia’s shores. Many of his films have been funded internationally – the ABC declined to broadcast his first five films – and his work has been recognised in numerous retrospectives, including at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Back at home, he’s been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Australian Film Institute’s Byron Kennedy Award (1990), Best Documentary Award (for Land Mines, in 2005) and Best Direction in a Documentary (for Cunnamulla in 2001).



Image: Yap...How Did You

Know We'd Like TV? Photo by Dennis O'Rourke.© Camerawork Pty, Ltd

   O’Rourke’s best films are always implicitly about the process of filmmaking itself, prodding and poking our ideas of truth and objectivity. They explore the power relations and developing intimacy that occur between a filmmaker and his subjects. Sometimes, the results cause controversy. There was a general uproar in 1991 when O’Rourke made a film about a Thai prostitute with whom he was involved (The Good Woman of Bangkok); and in recent years he’s been embroiled in a court case (which he won) brought against him by two teenage girls upset at their portrayal in Cunnamulla. Yet O’Rourke’s admirers would argue that his films are far from exploitative; that it’s his own vulnerabilities and sensitivities which are most explicitly displayed; and that a kind of love is always evident in his depictions.
Now, as O’Rourke celebrates the first two volumes of his films being released on DVD, the AFI talks to him about the unifying themes in his films; his ideas about truth and objectivity; and his advice to young documentary filmmakers.


AFI: How does it feel to see your first eight films together now in this collection?
Dennis O’Rourke: Well, the one thought that I had, seeing them all again, was that it reminded me of the fact that in some ways I kept making the same film over and over again! Certainly the theme, if there is a unifying theme there, is a certain level of personal engagement between the filmmaker – who is also the cinematographer looking through the viewfinder – and the people who become the characters in the film. And that creates a kind of relationship. At the same time I hope the audience is aware that there is also a process in real life that is going on. There’s a verisimilitude, even though the documentary is a created artefact.
AFI: You’ve talked at length elsewhere about the problematic idea of ‘truth’ and the constructed nature of ‘reality’ in documentary.
DO’R: The notion of objective reality in cinema – any kind of cinema – is quite ridiculous. A film is an artefact. There’s some kind of artifice there. Somebody had to make it. So it isn’t real life, but it’s a representation. But with a documentary, a good documentary, you can get that transcendental moment where you go, ‘this is real. I know this to be true.’ And it’s not because there are a whole lot of facts assembled before you and presented to you on screen, but it’s when you’re watching something and you have a kind of recognition, a self-recognition. I always aim for those moments. That’s something I was lucky to discover early on, and it’s something I always look for.
AFI: So do you think of yourself as an artist?
DO’R: Oh sure. I have always. But I find there’s a difficulty with that word in Australia. It’s a word that’s equated with [being] a wanker. There’s good art and there’s bad art. But I’m trying to create something; there’s a level of artistry involved. I’m not creating a report on something. It’s not security cameras on the wall of a bank! I’m trying to tell stories, it’s using storytelling elements that come from other art forms. Music, for instance. Music isn’t necessarily a huge part of my films – though it’s important – but the notion of musicality is important, especially in these kinds of films that aren’t narrated to fit a certain structure. And the films I make have an element of meditation about them, an element of thesis about them. And they’ve got, what they really have is a promise. And the promise is no more complicated than you sidling up to somebody and saying, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’
AFI: What would your advice be to young documentary filmmakers?
DO’R: What I would say would be to hoe your own furrow, that’s for sure. Paradoxically, even though there are lots of so-called funding avenues open, and television in all its forms is ravenous for a certain kind of ‘reality’ programming, there’s this pressure to just give television executives what they want. I’d say to try and resist it. Documentary is becoming subsumed into to television, and television, including our public broadcasters – who actually have a larger responsibility than making programs about minor personalities running around the bush making proclamations about climate change – there’s got to be more to it than that. Most of what we call documentary on television – including on the ABC and SBS is not documentary. They misappropriate the name. The reason these films are not documentaries is because they don’t start with the fundamental underlying philosophy that you are looking to discover something. There’s nothing to discover. They are just filling in a formula.
Young filmmakers, who generally go through some course or other – find that the only way that they can get formal funding is to jump into bed with commissioning television editors, and these people have no allegiance or commitment or even love of what I call documentary. It’s interesting that the first five of my films were deemed unsuitable for broadcast on the ABC. The only reason I survived was because they were financed by North America and Britain.
AFI: Have things changed since then?
DO’R: Nothing really changes. But now what’s happening is that there’s a certain amount of money set aside by funding bodies to make so-called documentary. But the commitment to put that money into films that might have some pretensions to being art, in the sense of aiming for what all art does, which is to change you in some way, well most of what’s on TV is not going to change anything. All it does is reconfirm the same inane level of engagement with society that these sorts of programs foster. That’s pretty sad. For the young people I say, fight it. Try to resist it. But it’s not easy, I know.
AFI: You must have had a certain level of skill then to have gotten money from commissioning editors over the years, and yet still retained enough autonomy to make the kinds of films you wanted to make?
DO’R: I have had that luck. But I’m aware that you’re only as good as your last film. I might get to make a film every three years. It’s difficult. I’m not asking for it to be any easier for me. I do wish it could be easier for young filmmakers to be able to make films that didn’t have to fit into a formula all the time. Who knows, they might surprise us? Even now, there’s something every year that comes along – a couple of films in the AFI’s this year that I’ve seen – that are original and surprising, which is really important.
AFI: Do you think there’s a place for documentaries to be exhibited in cinemas?
DO’R: I’m sure there’s a place for it. But the statistics, including for my own films that got shown in cinemas, don’t seem to suggest that it’s going to be economically viable – well, that you’re going to make a profit. The future of documentary in cinema is really quite grim, but there’ll always be exceptions to the rule. But I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution – that audiences are going to flock to cinemas to see documentaries.
AFI: Are you pessimistic?
DO’R: I’m not really pessimistic, because I do know there’s a thirst for a kind of originality. Every generation wants original ways of telling stories. But because documentary production is now so tied up with television, television itself is the problem. Ironically, it might have been a better situation when television didn’t want our films, but occasionally grudgingly agree to show them! And it’s not as though people wouldn’t watch great documentaries when they’re on TV. There’s no dark science to it. Give any half-good documentary an 8.30 timeslot and a decent promotional budget and it will do just as well as a schlocky one.
AFI: Your next film is for SBS – about poetry and everyday Australians?
DO’R: Yes, that’s right. It’s progressing slowly. I had to have a year off just to deal with the court cases associated with Cunnamulla – which fortunately I was able to win. But finishing the next film is still a way away.
AFI: Can you tell us what it was like to win the Byron Kennedy Award? (O’Rourke won in 1990 for his ‘consistent innovation as an artist in the field of documentary’.)
DO’R: It was wonderful. At the time that I won it I was not really part of the establishment – not that I am now – but I knew what [the award] was. Jane Campion had won it the year before me. I was chuffed – anything that comes from your peers…I’m not a big fan of other jury systems. I’ve been on too many juries myself and know how compromised that process can be. But still there’s a need for people to judge and do it. So I’m not keen on prizes, but you’d be a liar to say you’re above the fray when you win something. And anything that comes from your peers…Those positive emotions kick in!
AFI: Thank you for talking with us, and best wishes with your next film.



Volumes 1 & 2 of The Dennis O’Rourke Collection are now available on DVD through Shock.
Volume 1: Yap…How Did You Know We’d like TV?, Yumi Yet, The Shark Callers of Kontu, Ileksen.
Volume 2: Couldn’t Be Fairer, Cannibal Tours, Half Life, The Good Woman of Bangkok.
For more information on Dennis O’Rourke, visit his website at

For a lengthy and insightful interview transcript, in which O’Rourke discusses his philosophy of filmmaking with Tracey Spring, Click Here.

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