Director/Producer: Dennis O’Rourke
Production co: Camerawork Ltd/Film Australia/Australian Broadcasting Corp
Cinematography/Sound: Dennis O’Rourke
Additional Photography/Sound: Simon Smith, Paul Davern
Editors: Dennis O’Rourke, Andrea Lang
Music: Frederic Chopin, Slim Dusty
“Cunnamulla is a tough, sunburnt Queensland town at the end of the train line, 800 kilometres west of Brisbane. It is the setting for a new documentary by the congenitally controversial Dennis O’Rourke. Funny, appalling and graced with a certain awe for its hard-bitten subjects, Cunnamulla never resembles a comprehensive portrait of the town. It is, however, a provocatively coherent one.
“Our first glimpse is through the venetians: Neredah, a highly opinionated guide, opens the film as she takes a gawk at some off-screen newcomers. ‘New lot,’ she says ominously. ‘They’re paying $65 a week for that place.’ She’s married to Arthur, the driver of what appears to be the only taxi in town. He, too, has his opinions as he shows us the sights, but he’s less vocal than Neredah, an obstreperous advocate of corporal punishment for wayward teens.
Cara and Kelly-Anne, 13-going-on-40, are no less blunt when they discuss the ploys the local boys use to score sexual favours. DJ Marto dreams of getting a band together, although he’s convinced that the town isn’t ready for what he’s got to offer, but damn, it needs to wake up! His girlfriend’s parents aren’t that ready for Marto either. His adoptive father, after introducing us to his electric fans, tends to sit in the kitchen muttering about his druggie son’s wasted life.
“There is the briefest glimpse of Aboriginal ruin amongst the film’s general sense of degeneration. Despite being as Australian as corks on a hat, Cunnamulla is awfully recognisable on this side of the Tasman too. O’Rourke clearly has an affinity and affection for the characters he shows. You feel for those old little girls and their premature sour knowledge. — Sandra Reid, New Zealand Film Festival 2001
“It is a film of close encounters, of an edgy, partial, often revealing intimacy with a small group of subjects… O’Rourke’s focus is in individuals and their relationships. Occasionally we see more than a couple of figures in a frame, and there are fleeting glimpses of events and groups: a funeral, the races, a show, shots of kids in a pool, or riding on a merry-round. These shots are carefully composed, pleasing to look at – O’Rourke may be presenting an often bleak vision, but it is also lovingly framed, occasionally dreamlike, suddenly beautiful… This is a film of surprising warmth and generosity, even if there is also a desolation at its heart. – Philippa Hawker, The Age, 8/3/01
“Near the end of Cunnamulla, Dennis O'Rourke's new documentary, Herb the scrap metal merchant fixes his steely gaze on the camera.
“‘You've got a bloody good soft bloo˙SMB € ų˙ ou'd be on a pretty fair screw. Yeah. Yeah. Standing back there with a half-smile on your f---in' face. Free hotel. Free travel. Flash machinery. All top gear. Yeah. And where are you off to next?’
“O'Rourke is out of sight, but when he replies it's the only time we hear his voice: ‘I think I'll settle down in Cunnamulla.’
“‘Don't tell me lies,’ whips Herb, taking a puff of his rollie and looking off at the horizon.
“After spending nine months of 1998 and 1999 in Queensland's remote hinterland, O'Rourke returned to his Canberra home last year with 100 hours of interviews. Editing himself, he trimmed that down to 30 hours by picking 10 characters and discarding the rest, but then needed to cut those 30 hours into 80 minutes. And it's telling that the above exchange made the cut.
‘My whole schtick is to absolutely, wholly immerse myself,’ O'Rourke says. ‘To go inside first, then look out again.’
“‘To compare Cunnamulla with The Good Woman of Bangkok - which I do, though on the surface they're very different - I see them as similar in terms of their common humanity and my engagement. Deliberately, in the opening scenes, I'm inside the house when Neredah is conspiratorially talking to me about her Aboriginal neighbours.’
“Yes, and that makes the viewer uneasy. You feel like a voyeur.
“‘Voyeur is not the word I'd use. To be a voyeur you have to be not there yourself. What I try to do is to be so engaged myself that you, the audience, must see the film in part through my sensibilities, my eyes. So it's not as it conventionally is, where the film-maker is faintly superior. Since I reject 'voyeurism' I think I owe you a word, and I think it's 'complicity'.’
“‘I'm tired of this sanctimonious view of the other. The people of Cunnamulla are the other for us, the same as the people of New Guinea or Thailand, but they're sure as hell not marginal in their own heads.’
“What might enrage the populace of Cunnamulla, though, is that O'Rourke hasn't chosen his subjects because they're typical but because they're interesting or eccentric.
“‘During the time I was there I came into contact with the marginal of the marginal, if you like. People like Paul and Cara and Kellie-Anne. And it sounds trite, but I believe you don't make the film, the film makes you. If you're rational, sometimes the true beauty and meaning escapes. So you have to be very irrational, mad even.’
“‘One by one I came into contact with the kind of people you find harder to approach. And as I got to know these people better, particularly Paul and the girls, the way they talked to me with such cauterising honesty, they set the benchmark. Because they were able to be so honest and intimate with me and the camera, it made the other filming I'd done, where people were holding back, not as interesting.’
“O'Rourke says he is still in contact with the film's subjects. ‘All of them. I was on the phone to Neredah and to Marto this morning. Actually Marto's very excited because Triple J are going to interview him. I think he's hoping he'll get a job there. I said, 'Marto, don't smoke a cone before you go on'.’” — Sacha Molitorisz, Sydney Morning Herald