Discussing “The Filmmaker and the prostitute” by Dennis O’Rourke

Biography of Dennis O’Rourke

Dennis O’Rourke came from Brisbane, Australia. He was born there in 1945. Most of his young years he spent in small country towns, a little later he moved was sent to a Catholic boarding school to get his secondary education. In the middle 1960, after the 2 unsuccessful years of studying, Dennis started traveling in from the remote Australia to the Pacific Islands and then to South Asia. Dennis O’Rourke tried many professions as a salesman, laborer, a cowboy and a roughneck on oil rigs and even as a sailor. All of this time he was learning photography and became a photojournalist in 1970. Soon after this he moved to Sydney. O’Rourke was employed as a gardener assistant by The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, few years later he became a cinematographer for this corporation.

In the period from 1975 to 1979, Dennis O’Rourke lived in Papua New Guinea, which was about to be decolorized. There he worked for the newly created government, he was a professor of filmmaking technology. His first film, Yumi Yet – Independence for Papua New Guinea, was completed in 1976. This film has become very famous and received many awards.

His other films include: 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) and The Pagode da Tia Beth (1993). Besides producing his own films, Dennis O”Rourke helped in creation of other documentary films as director, producer, cinematographer and mentor.

The works of this author, were discussed in the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Pacific Film Archive in San Francisco. His works were evaluated by the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, and in Freiburg, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Marseille, Melbourne, New Delhi, Singapore, and Uppsala. On two occasions, he has been a Visiting Fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the AustralianNational University.

His numerous awards include: the Jury Prize for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival the Grand Prix at the Nyon Documentary Film Festival, the Grand Prix at the Festival de Popoli, Florence, the Eastman Kodak Award for Cinematography, the Director’s Prize for Extraordinary Achievement at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Australian Film Institute’s Byron Kennedy Award.

Dennis O’Rourke has five children and lives in Canberra, Australia. He continues to make feature documentary films, the latest being Cunnamulla, which was released in December 2000.

Documentary “The Good Woman of Bangkok”

In this essay I would like to take a close look at one of his documentary works called “The Good Woman of Bangkok”. The film mostly is about a prostitute in Bangkok by the name Aoi, it provides a graphic picture of the situation without now hope of the Thai women who end up degrading. These women work in the global network of sex industry that all the Asian countries promote to bring tourists in and get them to pay.

An old woman that supposedly came from the same village Aoi was from gives us a detailed picture of her childhood. Originally Aoi came from a very poor family and even went to school, but since she was blind on one eye, she could not keep up with the program and dropped out to take care of other kids in the family and to work as a servant. She got married but was dumped by her husband as soon as she got pregnant. To earn her living, Aoi took her son and moved to Bangkok to work at sleazy bars and clubs, those bars were inviting foreign men to come and get and kind of sex that they could possibly wish for, and it was very cheap. (One of the oddities of this film is that it focuses only on female prostitutes and gives no inkling that male prostitution is also a booming business in these places). Her father, described as a spendthrift who spent all his money on gambling and partying, often came to visit her there and took money from her.

Though the filmmaker’s camera never shows him, Dennis O’Rourke makes himself part of Aoi’s story as well. Through printed titles he tells us that after he divorced his wife we went to Thailand, met Aoi, decided to make this film about her, and that he bought her a rice farm in payment for making the film–something she says she is working and hoping for.

I had a hard time with this film. Firstly, it is difficult to watch the sex shows and the ways in which the women display themselves for the customers. The attitudes of the men who come to these meat markets for their “holidays” are utterly disgusting. And, although the filmmaker’s intention seems clearly to be to do an expose of how this industry objectifies and destroys the women who work in it, the film itself doesn’t take a clear enough stance in opposition to these practices. I kept thinking that some men might go see this film precisely in order to see the nude dancers and as a kind of travelogue of the sensual delights awaiting them if they avail themselves of the cheap plane fares from Japan and Europe to Southeast Asia for such sex tours. I kept wishing that O’Rourke had done more of what Bonnie Sherr did in her film about the sex industry in Toronto “Not A Love Story” in which one of the women who was a participant in that industry became part of the filmmaking team and we see her undergoing a change of attitude about her own work and her colleagues as her feminist consciousness is raised on the issues.

In this film feminist consciousness and a feminist (or economic or political) analysis of the situation of these women is utterly lacking. (If you want to read one you might look for starters at Cynthia Enloe’s book “Bananas, Beaches and Bases”). Though Dennis O’Rourke means well, and though much of the film is devoted to Aoi’s first-person recitations of her feelings about her life and her work, I kept feeling that O’Rourke represented to her just one more trick, who was paying her for her time and who, therefore, deserved to get whatever he wanted from her–only this one was kinkier than most, for he only wanted her to talk about her life. In these talks she makes it clear that she thinks that it’s her responsibility to give the customer whatever he’s paying her for. And even though these sequences seem to be giving her a chance to speak in her own voice, my reaction, at least, was that they further serve to objectify her as she once again provides a man with what gives him pleasure, i.e., footage for his film.

In an epilogue Dennis O’Rourke returns to Thailand and to the rice farm he had given Aoi after a year only to find that she’s back in Bangkok plying her trade. Again there’s no exploration of why this romanticized dream of “saving” her did not work except for her own hopeless words to the effect that “This is my fate.” A true expose might have delved more deeply into the ideology and politics that make this “her fate.”

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. 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.

Anne Coombs writing in the Canberra Times accused Dennis 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.

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”.

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. Dennis 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 emphasizes 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.

Dennis 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 and Cunnamulla

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. LikeYap, Cunnamulla’s focus on individuals sustains and drives the narrative.

Cunnamulla explores life and love at the end of the railway line 800 kilometers west of Brisbane, Australia. In the months leading up to a scorching Christmas in the bush, there’s a lot more going on than the annual lizard race. In Cunnamulla, Aboriginal and white Australians live together, but apart. Creativity struggles against indifference, eccentricity against conformity. Filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke (The Good Woman of Bangkok) introduces us to real-life characters such as Arthur, the only taxi driver in town, Herb, the junk dealer, and Cara and Kellie-Anne, promiscuous teens who long to escape to the city. Sometimes sad, often hilarious, Cunnamulla is an astonishingly honest portrait of life in a small, isolated town. Andrew Urban of Urban Cinefile called it “arguably Dennis O’Rourke’s most powerful and subversive work…a vivid, disturbing portrait of an outback community.” Cunnamulla was named Best Documentary at the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia 2000 Awards.

In his book The Filmmaker and the Prostitute O’Rourke says, “…for it to work, the filming process must be an ordeal of contact with perceived reality—I must place myself within the flux of what I am attempting to film” and “the film includes a character—’the filmmaker’—who reflects me and others of my race and class, gender and profession, but who is not me….”


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