Dennis O’Rourke has the rambling, slightly ramshackle appearance of a writer
– which he is, though his writing instrument is a camera. He is above average size,
which combined with his expansive and energetic – often passionate – manner,
makes him a forceful personality. I mention this because after seeing Cunnamulla, his
latest doco, one tends to wonder how he manages to insinuate himself with his subjects so
"a deeply personal connection"
The answer is that he always works alone (even operates the camera) and establishes
"a deeply personal connection" with his subjects. As the front man of SBS
TV’s Front Up* series of social documentaries, I understand this concept very well,
it being parallel to my own approach. The big difference is that O’Rourke spent nine
months (over two time periods) with his subjects, I only spend 20 minutes with mine.
"Documentary filmmakers who feel in a privileged position don’t understand
that," says O’Rourke. "That distances them – in other words, it makes
their subject and object. I see it as a more intimate contract and they get to know me as
well as I get to know them." This is anathema to most doco makers who consciously
avoid being in any way involved in their subject for fear of ‘altering’ or
influencing their objective observation. For O’Rourke (and for me) it’s a matter
of horses for courses: in making a doco about Cunnamulla – or, rather about some of
its inhabitants – O’Rourke spent enough time with the people to allow them to
form that ‘contract’ he talks about.
"This is my first film made in my own country," he remarks, "and the
story of our relationship with Aborigines is the ONE story in this country [that needs to
be pursued]…and Cunnamulla doesn’t really address it either." Matter of
But what Cunnamulla does address head on, is another important story: rural Australia.
And O’Rourke is passionate about that, too. "I’m sick of the city elite
media’s and politicians’ treatment of country people and their problems. They
don’t get nearly close enough to the people – they’re treated as and seen
"a more generic concept"
The starting point for Cunnamulla was a more generic concept: "I had the idea of
making an Anatomy of a Country Town, back at the start of Pauline Hanson’s rise to
popularity. It had to be really outback, brown, not green… and it had to have a
critical mass. Cunnamulla has a population of roughly 1500 – 2000, split 50 – 50
blacks and whites; or rather, 50 – 50 who identify themselves as blacks or whites. It
was settled about 125 years ago. A lot of the filming has dropped by the wayside as the
film cleared itself to me," he explains.
O’Rourke found the town after picking up a hire car to start looking all over
Queensland, where he comes from . "I do believe there’s something about
Queensland…I can’t pin it down but as you cross the border, things turn gothic.
. . something happens."
Cunnamulla was the first town he looked at: "intuition took me there…then I
saw 30 other towns but I went back." It was a tortuous process to raise the pitiful
budget, and he was dragged into the digital age by sheer necessity. "I’d wanted
to do it on Super 16, but the cost factor prevented it. I shot it on MiniDV and now
I’m a convert." (He is also a thankful convert, keen to acknowledge the
financial assistance of Film Australia’s National Interest program, "without
which this sort of film could not be made.")
"The film is raw in every sense"
The film is raw in every sense, full of strong, colourful language, though that’s
not to say it’s rough visually. It is certainly a rough slice of rough life, and the
locals are not about to change their language patterns for anyone: "It’s very
important that this film gets onto television," says O’Rourke, "because of
the reach of audiences. The language might be a problem, but it’s not for me to
censor how people speak. The worst thing I can imagine, though, is bleeping out the swear
words. That would turn the ‘c’ word into an offensive sexual term, which it
isn’t in the context of how people speak in Cunnamulla…" and many other
places across Australia. O’Rourke talks about the term in context as in, "hi
there, sweet cunt" used by Aborigines (among others) in a sisterly, celebratory
argot. Not that the white men of Cunnamulla using the word fall into the same category . .
Another controversial issue is the shocking intimacy of two teenage girls.
"It’s a really complicated issue," says O’Rourke, as if to say
there’s not much point making a doco about simple ones. "It’s a moral
decision [how to film them] but it was one of the girls, Cara, who was the one who invited
me to include her, unlike the others who I’d discovered myself. She represents the
more marginal of the marginal.
"She and her friend Kelly-Anne volunteered one evening in the ghostlike town after
dinner. ‘Hey Mr Movieman, she called out, why don’t you film us…’
After meeting her mum, I did." O’Rourke then goes on to talk about Cara’s
troubled family situation and observes the irony that it was the mum who had to sign the
There are 10 major and 15 minor characters in Cunnamulla the film; some people say this
is not a truly representative sample of a town of almost 2,000 people, and that it’s
like filming a few interviews in Sydney’s poverty stricken Redfern and calling the
film Sydney. O’Rourke sees his film as a searing look, not from the outside looking
in, but from the inside, looking out.
"a metaphor for destruction"
In one scene, a dog catcher shoots an abandoned dog – one of many. O’Rourke
defends the scene: "Everything in the film is a metaphor – and that is a
metaphor for destruction."
Published: December 14, 2000