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Things turn Gothic across the border in Queensland, says documentarian Dennis O’Rourke, whose latest film, Cunnamulla, is likely to provoke, divide and amaze. He talks to Andrew L. Urban about how and why he made the film, a documentary shot in the Queensland country town of Cunnamulla, focusing on several of its inhabitants.

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 successfully.

"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 opinion.

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 as marginal."

"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 clearance form.

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

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Dennis O'Rourke

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*Front Up series 8, on SBS TV at 7.30pm from Tuesday January 2, 2001.

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