16 January 2001

Cunnamulla: Australia all over?


[Feature interview, The Bulletin, 16/01/2001]

Documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke's talks about his controversial new film.

"CUNNAMULLA - it's a c**t of a place!" scream the provocative street posters for Dennis O'Rourke's new film. And on the basis of his intimate portraits of several inhabitants of that remote outback Queensland town, it's hard to argue with him. In O'Rourke's Cunnamulla, social and cultural disintegration spans the racial divide, cut through poverty, brutality, incarceration and ignorance.

"Grog, drugs, fighting, lookin' for women, breakin' n'enterin' - that's about all y'can do in Cunnamulla," says Paul, a young Aborigine facing 6 months jail on assault charges.

"There's no work," says Herb, the local scrap metal dealer. "We're all livin' on the blackfellas money on pension day." Then there's 13 year old Cara and 15 year old Kellie-Anne, who tell in uncomfortable detail of their promiscuous lives: "The boys here don't like usin' protection but I tell 'em any boy that makes me pregnant, I'll dump the kid on 'em." Neredah, the local taxi driver's wife, advocates public floggings as a deterrent for teenage pregnancy, or any other misdemeanor, for that matter. "And if they do it again flog 'em harder!"  And you can't tell her husband, Arthur, "that they're not in-breeding in a town like this."

O'Rourke clearly courts controversy, and with Cunnamulla, you know he's going to get it. "We all have a dark side," he tells the Bulletin on the eve of the film's Sydney release. "I actively look for it, I want to go there, to reveal all those contradictions and hidden paradoxes which are all the things that make for great stories."

Contradictions like Jack: an Aborigine who openly refers to "those black c**ts", a pensioner who relies on sickness benefits yet denounces government for doling out handouts to those who "won't work". The very epitome of One Nation, Jack reckons "those c**ts John Howard and Peter Beattie should both be put up against a wall and shot." Ruminating on such matters, sitting topless in his kitchen in front of the electric fan, Jack cuts a compelling figure, warts and all.

It's unsettling, and that's just how O'Rourke wants it. "I think this film is really deeply disturbing to us and it says something about us in total," he says. "I'm looking for real people, that's where I'm trying to go. For everything you want to say you don't have to go looking for the big glossy subject. You can find life and truth and revelation and ultimately make political statements in the most unprepossessing or banal situations.

"If this film resonates then it's because you say 'yes, that's it!' that's life, it's the struggle, it's the tragedy of it all."

None of these "characters", as O'Rourke calls them, are easily pigeonholed. That's because, working completely alone, O'Rourke spent the better part of a year living with them, befriending them, winning their trust in order to capture the complexity of their lives on film. "Not only did I get to know them very well, they got to know me very well."

By becoming so involved with his subjects O'Rourke hopes to break down the so-called "critical distance" between the observer and the observed. He wants to debunk the conventional notion of the documentary filmmaker as the dispassionate, impartial observer of an uncomplicated reality.

"I get involved and place myself in relationship to my subject, and the audience has to see it through me. And by making myself vulnerable, or even deficient, or even of questionable character, I place the audience there as well."

It's a strategy that doesn't always work, like the last time he made himself "vulnerable", in his 1991 film The Good Woman Of Bangkok, in which he "cast" himself as a sex tourist who falls in love with a Bangkok prostitute after purchasing her services in order to make the film we see about her life. In fact he worked for three months with local NGOs to find the right subject for the "lead role". So while the details were almost fictional - he did "fall in love" with the good woman - the portrait of Bangkok's pernicious sex trade and its effect on the sex workers was not. But in blurring the line between documentary and fiction O'Rourke ran headlong into a torrent of moral outrage, as the normally righteously open-minded audience of Sydney Film Festival doubted and openly denounced his motives.

Ten years on, what he doesn't want with Cunnamulla is "what happened with The Good Woman, and that is to be hijacked by people who are in a terrible rush to avoid confronting a much more messier truth and reality than they want to know about."

But O'Rourke himself avoids some realities in favour of others. Cunnamulla's local Aboriginal activists are cut from the film simply because their "level of performance wasn't good enough… I started to film them but we're doing cinema here and it just didn't work."

He takes up the point, stridently: "There's several other films in there including the one that many people said I should have made which shows the so-called 'other' side of Cunnamulla. Well, what you see here is MY vision of the world, and it's not a simple one. It's my job to reveal the truth as I see it. No matter how uncomfortable. To those who say, 'oh, you shouldn't do that' - they're the frightened ones. They don't want to know.

"That's the responsibility of the artist  - to say things that may be troubling. I'm not in the public relations game."

What does he say to critics like David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz on the SBS Movie Show, who dismiss the film as nothing but a freak show? "I'd say to them 'get f**ked!' - David and his bloody pontificating! I love Godard's quote about critics: 'They are like soldiers that fire on their own men'. I love that."

Yet he does want the film "to resonate, provoke, and disturb - if it doesn't I'll feel I haven't done my job. We who are not making fiction films have an obligation not to pander, not to preach to the converted, not to just give the simplistic messages that people want.

"I can't put my finger on it, but I know this film speaks deeply about what it means to be Australian at the end of the twentieth century."

He's right: you can't put your finger on it. In Cunnamulla, the ultimate message – whether complex or simple - remains unclear. Whether you're a rampaging redneck, bleeding heart liberal, or PC social engineer, Cunnamulla will both confirm and deny in the same instant every prejudice or stereotype you might hold about Australia's Deep North and the plight of outback Aboriginal people. Certainly the viewer IS free draw her own conclusions but by closing credits we can conclude little more than that Cunnamulla is indeed a c**t of a place.

At the end of the film O'Rourke allows Herb, the scrap metal dealer, to poke fun at the filmmaker's own ultimate distance from his subjects: "You've got a soft bloody life - standing there with a half smirk on your face. Free hotels, free travel, flash bloody machinery. So what's next?"

O'Rourke pauses and replies "I might just settle down in Cunnamulla." But Herb, O'Rourke himself and the audience all know he's just been passing through.

CUNNAMULLA opens nationally in January.

- MICHAEL HUTAK

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