Dennis O’Rourke is no stranger to controversy. The Good Woman of Bangkok, his 1991 documentary about his relationship with a Thai bar girl, is almost certainly the most written about Australian documentary of recent years (1). It created a furore amongst feminists when it was released at the Documentary conference in 1991. Half Life (1985) documented the official government cynicism behind US nuclear testing in the Pacific and led to open debate on the morality of exposing the Marshall Islanders to fallout. His current film Cunnamulla (1999) has opened a lively debate both within and about the town that bears its name. The debate has centred on O’Rourke’s depiction of the sexual activities of a 13-year-old and 15-year-old girl in the town, namely Cara and Kellie-Ann respectively. O’Rourke has been attacked both in print and in person for his use of the girls’ confessions on their real or imagined sexual adventures. Inter alia O’Rourke’s film exposes a type of Australian life on the fringe, and the attitudes of people living in that environment. As Cunnamulla eloquently states – the town is symbolically and actually at the end of the railway line, the permanent link to a wider community.
Speaking about Cunnamulla, O’Rourke says:
I was drawn toward the people who were not officials or spokespersons in the town but who were, instead, emblematic of all the issues that confront and affect people who live in places like Cunnamulla. I wanted to make a film about so-called “marginal” people. But they’re not marginal in their own heads and in their own hearts, and they’re not marginal to me. These are people who show their ability to express the inner condition of humanity through the description of their own, often banal, experiences… If the film has any genius, it’s that… If I have succeeded then I will have made a film which is like a play that has been written out of life; the film will have gone beyond those banal events and everyday happenings to tell a story, which is universal (2).
Anne Coombs writing in the Canberra Times accused O’Rourke of misrepresenting the town and its milieu:
I felt he had been unfair …he proceeded to ignore 95 percent and concentrate instead on the dark vision he took with him.I wasn’t expecting O’Rourke to present a balanced sociological study of Cunnamulla. Such a dreary exercise would quite rightly be anathema to a creative person. But he has apparently made no attempt to capture the spirit of the town, to give a sense of what life is like there (3).
O’Rourke’s reply was published a week later: “I was able to make a film that could reveal some aspects that have remained beyond the limits of exploration by other writers and filmmakers”. (4)
The Coombs attack based itself on the expectation that the filmmaker would present a representative account of life in Cunnamulla and show solid citizens instead of simply fringe personalities. O’Rourke responds that the people in his film are articulate and aware of their ranking on the social scale and their views are entitled to be heard. This raises the question of the representations made by the filmmaker in gaining his material and we have to take O’Rourke’s account of this process, in the interview that follows, that the participants were in full agreement that their material should be used. O’Rourke’s ethics in using the girls’ interview to provide revelations about the town were brought into question. Another attack accuses O’Rourke of exploitation, claiming that the girls were interviewed on the basis that they were contestants in a Miss Princess competition, when in fact his interests lay elsewhere. Cara’s mother said she was upset and embarrassed after seeing her daughter talking about sex in the film. O’Rourke emphatically denies exploiting the young women.
One is reminded of Margaret Mead interviewing young women in Western Samoa in 1925 for a study called Coming of Age In Samoa (1928) when they revealed what were supposed to be their deepest secrets. Later interviewers revealed the possibility that the women had made up the stories because they appeared to gratify Mead’s quest for information. How true can such revelations be?
Cunnamulla is an ethnographic study. Its style emphasises the individual interviews and puts the viewer in the role of a detached observer. Meanwhile the dialogue gives meaning to the overall scene. Overall, O’Rourke restrains camera movement in the interests of clarity, so it comes as a surprise when he resorts to pull focus and pans during Cara’s discussion with her mum early in the film.
O’Rourke employs a familiar technique of ethnographic film – the long take that allows character to evolve in the filmmaking process without cutting for emphasis. It is remarkably apt for this portrait of disparate personalities. The long take is both contemplative and challenging as we observe in detail the faces of people who are apparently at the edge of this society. A standard technique in his filmmaking style, O’Rourke records his interviews off the shoulder using lightweight domestic equipment. The coverage is democratic in that it includes a wide range of age and gender groupings, but it is also confrontational for the audience – there is no escape from the steady gaze of the interviewees.
O’Rourke has a long history as documentary filmmaker, and his familiarity with documentary tropes is evident throughout Cunnamulla. Static shots such as the opening scenes at the sheep dip set up the town’s rural basis. Some characters comment on the action in the town – Arthur the taxi driver and his wife Neredah, Herb the scrap dealer, and Ringo the undertaker and dogcatcher.
Cunnamulla is similar to an earlier film by O’Rourke, Yap How Did You Know We’d Like TV? (1980), which is a portrait of a small island community from the Micronesian islands, coping with the introduction of both local and imported TV. The community portrait is based on first hand comments and observational camerawork. Like Yap, Cunnamulla’s focus on individuals sustains and drives the narrative.
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The following is taken from a public talk between O’Rourke and an audience in Brisbane after a screening of Cunnamulla at the Schonell Cinema.
I always say that I don’t make the films, that the film makes me. This one and every other film I have ever made. I repeat that I am not a journalist and I don’t want to be a journalist. In fact I don’t have much time for the notion of impartial journalism because I just think it is a myth. I am an artist, journalists in theory go for analysis. I don’t mean to say it pompously when I say I am an artist, but I am an artist, there are good and bad artists. You be the judge. So what I do is I look for synthesis. I go into any situation, whether it be Bangkok, or Cunnamulla or the Marshall Islands or Papua New Guinea or anywhere. What I go to do is to go into a situation where thinking people have expectations of what is there, including myself and by a process that I put myself through I attempt to reveal the truths that are beyond what everyone already knows, that’s the synthesis. That is the synthetic process. This film is called Cunnamulla. I couldn’t have called it Cunnamulla if it was only about Cunnamulla. In calling it Cunnamulla, it is about Australia, it’s about the world if you like.
To make these films you have got to persuade people to give you money, so I had to write a proposal. Three or four years ago I had a dream and the dream was this film. I didn’t know it was going to be in Cunnamulla, or Queensland or whatever. I knew none of the characters that are in the film as you see it, but I had this dream and the light bulb sort of thing, and the dream I had was this film. I can honestly say that, the film that you saw tonight, or at least the film that I saw tonight, that was the film that I described when I said I am going to make this film. I am going to go into some country town and through a process of just getting to know some people, and through some kind of symphonic effect of putting them all together in a certain space in time, to try and address some issues that bother me. I think these issues, which are the issues of race and identity, bother all thinking Australians. And then I was given some money to go anywhere I wanted to go in Australia to find it, but obviously it had to be found where there was a significant aboriginal population and it needed to be an outback town. Part of the outback, I thought, a brown town rather than a green town, a brown landscape rather than a green one because that is where the myths are, the Slim Dusty myths and all the myths that we have about the outback and the bush. It seems obvious now that I would come back to Queensland because that is where I had my own greatest memories of growing up.
I came to Queensland and I travelled about 30 towns from the Gulf down. The only other town that really approached where I might have done the film was Cloncurry. But the first town I went to, doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant now, in the sense that the film is not about Cloncurry or Cunnamulla, it is about us in general, and the first place I went to was Cunnamulla, that was the intuition, and I came back to Cunnamulla. Even then, the only people who appear in the final film that I had an expectation would be in the film at that stage were Arthur and Neredah. That is all. Everyone else I found along the way.
Selection of Material
I started by, as one does, by filming the Mayor, the schoolteachers, the kids in the school, the police, the priest, the council meetings and other people. They were very useful and helpful to me because they told me a lot about, from their perspective, what they thought of Cunnamulla. But I wasn’t there to make their vision of Cunnamulla. I was there to make my film about an idea which is set in Cunnamulla, but as I said, I don’t make the film, the film makes me, so I could give you the story of each of those other individual characters, the ten main ones in the film. One will suffice if you like, and that is Cara, the aboriginal girl.
I stayed in the Cunnamulla Hotel and I used to eat in the Warrego Hotel which is about half a kilometre walk. I was there alone all the time and every night I would walk across to the Warrego and mostly eat alone, steak and steak, and steak and red wine, and I would stumble home to my little room above the Cunnamulla Hotel. I used to see this little group of shrouded kids who were always just hanging around this little dead street in the middle of the night, just outside the aboriginal co-op office or in the park there next to the Police Station. One night this little girl said, “Hey Mr. film-maker, why don’t you come over and talk to us.” It was Cara, and I had been there probably two months at this stage, and she said, “why don’t you film me?” I said, well I could, but I have to meet your mum first so where do you live? “32 Bedford Street.” OK I will come up and meet your mum tomorrow and I did, and things progressed from there.
And each other character in the film, I found that way, or they found me. Now I kept filming other people but the process is organic, so there were people that I liked, probably because they liked me. For every person who agreed to be in the film, who I had asked to be in the film, there would have been several who said, “it’s fine, you can make a film here but I don’t want to be in it.” And then there would be another one who would say, and I will probably see them tomorrow when I go to Cunnamulla, “You come anywhere near me with that fucking camera and I will smash your head in.” There was a lot of that too, that’s the truth. And so, that’s fine, that’s what I expected. I was sort of settled after a few months more or less, with the people who are in the film. But I felt, that whatever I was getting from my relationship with them as it is filmed, was not going to be enough to tell the story that I wanted to tell, then I would have gone and found somebody else.
Not only did I get to know all the characters in the film very well, they got to know me. Now whenever Paul said to me, “I need $10 Dennis,” just like any other friend, if I had it and I didn’t need it, I would give him the $10, but it wasn’t payment, it wasn’t payment, nothing was connected to anything else. When Marto finally couldn’t pay his $400 marijuana fine and his father was worried that he was going to come down to jail here and get raped, I coughed up, as a loan. Unfortunately I haven’t been paid back yet, maybe one day I will be paid back, but that is just called mutual obligation. If you have friends that is what you do.
The light bulb for the film went on just before the beginning of the rise of Pauline Hanson. I thought that the whole idea of Hansonism and native title and “reconciliation” would loom larger in the film than it does. And because it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that I don’t place value on those issues, in a sense that this is just a film, a story, it’s just one thing. I would like to say about Cunnamulla, as some of you that have read the press will already know, that Cunnamulla is a town where half the people say they are black and half say they are white. If you get my drift. Now Jack in the film, Jack’s mother was aboriginal. Jack was born on the Warrego, on the creek, down at the river. His father was an Afghan. By every normal definition in Australia today, Jack is an aboriginal. Jack always said he talks about aboriginal people as “them”. “Them black cunts” he says. The greatest line that never got in the film was when I was talking to Jack about the fact that the Kooma people had been granted a sheep property through the indigenous lands council and I said, “Isn’t this great that they have been given this?” And Jack stares out the window for a while and he said, “Oh those black cunts, the only thing they know about sheep is how to eat the cunts”, he says.
Now that sounds offensive if you are removed from Cunnamulla, if you are in Cunnamulla it is not offensive. It is just how it is. Now are we to censor how people speak, are we to censor how they think? I think not. I think that the way that the debates about these issues are so rarefied by us city elites that we sort of somehow miss it you know. People who know the family, as soon as they saw Cara, they would know that she was aboriginal. But, blonde hair? Maybe not, you know. So for most people that I have shown the film to, it is only when they see Cara with her mother that they realise she is an aboriginal girl. Marto is absolutely white if you want precise definitions. All the aboriginal families in Cunnamulla have Irish surnames like McKillop, Water and Cavanagh, you know. They are not aboriginal names.
I used what I call a toy camera, you know a camera that tourists take on holidays. (5) Unlike when I am on ordinary films I am using film so you send it off to the laboratory, it gets processed. With video you can come back to the hotel room every night and look at everything that you have filmed. I didn’t do that because I have been trained as a filmmaker so in fact virtually, apart from occasionally checking to see that there was no technical hitch, I never looked at any of my rushes, the hundred or hundred and ten hours, until I finished filming. When I started to edit, then I started to look at it. At that stage I just looked at it all at once, alone, and it’s not that it’s all bad, there are probably two or three other films in there, the one about the councillors and all the other stuff that I filmed. But I make a decision which is my perfect right, to say the story I want to tell is not there, the story I want to tell is in Paul’s backyard and Kellie-Ann’s bedroom and in Neredah’s kitchen. That’s the story that I want to tell. Just like my six-year-old daughter will take a blank bit of paper and get her crayons out and she says, that’s you Daddy. That’s her story you know, that’s her right, her vision, and likewise Cunnamulla is mine.
So when I looked at that material once, then put it away, seventy hours or eighty hours, and I was left with thirty hours of tape. I never looked at the other stuff again. Not once. That was finished. You do this in a sort of trance-like state and I am watching all of it and I am saying, and I haven’t seen it maybe for a year. I am looking at Santa Claus in Cunnamulla while on the television they are talking about Operation Desert Fox. I haven’t seen it for a year. I had forgotten I had even filmed it, and I would say that has meaning to me, this has meaning, that has meaning and then I would keep those things.
And because it is digital, I would do a clone of that onto another tape and then Neredah says this, Neredah says that, and all the other characters, they are gone. They are not in my film, they can be in someone else’s film but they are not in mine. And at that stage of course, because the whole thing is one giant love affair, you then really fixate more and more on the people that you are interested in, the characters whose material I have kept. Most of it actually is quite repetitive because I was there for such a long time, it is not as if Neredah or the girls or Paul would say different things every time. They more or less say the same things. Because it wasn’t a process where I would say, I need you to tell me anything. It was me just hanging out with them, it was their need to tell me, not my need for them to tell me. But of course at another level that is the way I work. It is not as if I wasn’t aware that that would get me a better result. I have done it before, in Bangkok or somewhere else. So it was never a situation where I will say, Neredah, tell me about the lizard races. It will be that we are there she will say, “what have you been doing?” I said I have been out at the lizard races. It is just normal conversation, it is not interviewing, it is conversation. But then of course what happens is you think more about those ten major characters. I went back to Cunnamulla a few times. Not to film very much, but just to talk to people again and every week for the last year I have called Neredah to get my fix on the gossip in Cunnamulla.
Favourite image. My favourite moment in the film, it is a long scene, but it is the scene where Marto says he could give up the drugs easily and his girlfriend rolls her eyes and it is an unspoken comment.
I am very happy with the film, it is not and I can see deficiencies now of course, but I am pleased, I am pleased that it has created a stir. And you know, Mallarme said that a poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned, and that’s what I think about films, they are never finished. You just have to stop, you run out of money, run out of time.
I don’t accept the word marginal myself, I know it is used but to me to say these people are marginal is too frightening. They are not marginal in their own hearts or their own heads, they are not marginal in Cunnamulla, in their own families, they are not marginal to me. These are all the people who normally never get to speak to filmmakers about these issues. It is always the more official people who get to have the word on what is going on. Not Jack the retired council worker, and not Paul who is about to go to jail. Instead of Paul talking it would be the policeman or the welfare worker or you know, the mayor or whatever. Paul only appears in the film four times, each time its different, him looking at me, talking to me. The first time he just said “You know, in Cunnamulla all we can do is drink, smoke marijuana, fight, look for women and break in.” The second time he said there was no culture and the third time he described the listing of the crimes and the charges that are against him and he’s about to go to jail. Almost as an afterthought he said, “Oh well, didn’t have much to do with my father when I was young.” And that’s it, everything is there as an afterthought. And I think that Paul speaks with greater eloquence than anything I have ever heard from any other aboriginal spokesperson from Noel Pearson down, ever, about the condition of young aboriginal men in Australia today. In Cunnamulla people would refer to Paul as “vermin,” including some of the people in the film, some of my friends who are in the film. When I mentioned that I was a friend of Paul’s they would say “that fucking vermin.” I hope when they see the film they realise the depth of understanding Paul and Cara and Kellie-Ann, even Herb who sort of is ostracised in the town, the depth of understanding that these people have about their own conditions and their ability to express it so eloquently, at least to me eloquently. I think that it will come as a real shock to a lot of people in Cunnamulla because there is no other likelihood of that being shown.
I describe my work as throwing boulders in the middle of the road that people have to get around you know, that’s what I try to do.
There is no one truth. There are many, many truths, it is multiple and it is shifting and any one film cannot effect a change as such. I have seen it with enough people now, to know that the film says something deeply, the film says something that is very deep and has deeply troubled a lot of thinking people. Now there is something in this film which is not about just the conditions in Cunnamulla, it is about us, all of us. The film sort of somehow gets there. There is something that is going on in this film that makes you stop and think again and you have to reassess all of your preconceptions. Because we all locate ourselves in general around the issue of race and identity. In the broad sense we do. That is our national psychosis.
I am not a reporter, I am not an academic, I am not writing a thesis about the problems of the welfare situation in Cunnamulla. I just want the film to somehow effect a little sort of quantum shift in the way the people perceive the whole idea of us in terms of how we relate to racial issues.
I wasn’t there to make an educational movie about how things are going in Cunnamulla. I hear from certain sanctimonious cultural gate keepers down in Sydney about, “Oh we can’t let this language go through, this is shocking you know”, We have got David Stratton trying to save us from ourselves.
In Cunnamulla, don’t believe everything you read, don’t even believe everything you see, don’t even believe my film, but most of the tabloid stuff that’s been all the people that made those comments hadn’t even seen the film. All they had heard was sanctimonious bloody David Stratton saying the people in Cunnamulla wouldn’t like the film. That’s all. I have spoken to nine out of the ten major characters in the film now and they all are very, very happy about the film. . Cara was the last one to call me because she is not in Cunnamulla now, I said what did you think Cara? She said, Oh, it’s fine. I said what did Mum think? “Oh Mum said it is fine.”
I reject the notion that the film is a bleak picture of Cunnamulla. I think it is very affectionate and fortunately a lot of reviewers have said so too.
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Of course, there are defined feminist views on O’Rourke’s style of personal filmmaking. The final word comes from Documenter‘s Aunt Agony column:
His (O’Rourke’s) rationale at an informal discussion after the Q and A included the comment ‘Girls of 12 and 13 have been married and sexually active for centuries.’ Essentially he asked, ‘Why should we as filmmakers listen to the politically correct think police?’
I came away with the same question when his last film The Good Woman of Bangkok was released. Is he clever and creating a film pitched to create antagonism, and push the boundaries, or is he just sexist and his films reflect this? And if so why are we giving some one with such entrenched sexist views public money. We have moved a long way in the last 100 years – women are allowed into libraries and we are recognised as having brains. The backdrop with thousands of years of abuse as justification for continuing this really counters every thing women have achieved in recent history.
So – woman to woman – in your heart of hearts – which side of the fence do you sit on?
Prurience is a more peculiar issue. It is hard even to pin down what it means. But it’s the difference between reality television and a genuine documentary. (.) There is more than some sort of sordid satisfaction in viewing certain documentaries like Cunnamulla; voyeurism is transcended. And it is fair to say that some audience members feel that both Good Woman of Bangkok and Cunnamulla are prurient, are somehow distasteful. And also that other members don’t (6).
Every one will read Cunnamulla in their own way. For white middle class viewers, the film is confronting and disturbing for its depiction of rural society, in much the same way that Good Woman of Bangkok was confronting in terms of sexual politics. Both films raise issues for which there are no simple solutions.
Dennis O’Rourke – Filmography
Yumi Yet – Independence for Papua New Guinea (1976)
Ileksen – Politics in Papua New Guinea (1978)
Yap… How Did You Know We’d Like TV? (1980)
The Shark Callers of Kontu (1982)
Couldn’t Be Fairer (1984)
Half Life – A Parable for the Nuclear Age (1985)
“Cannibal Tours” (1988)
The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991)
The Pagode da Tia Beth (1993)
- Chris Berry, Annette Hamilton, Laleen Jayamanne (eds) The Filmmaker and the Prostitute – Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok Sydney: Power Publications, 1996
- Dennis O’Rourke Interviewed by Ruth Cullen on the Film Australia website http://www.filmaust.com.au
- Anne Coombs Canberra Times 23/01/01
- Dennis O’Rourke Canberra Times 05/02/01
- Sony DV Camera
- Documenter ‘Aunt Agony Column’ http://www.documenter.com.au