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Obit: Documentary Filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke (1945-2013)

Obit: Documentary Filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke (1945-2013)

The great Australian documentary filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke has died at 67. His often controversial documentaries on the human condition  include “Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age” (1985) “Cannibal Tours” (1988) and “The Good Woman of Bangkok” (1991) and “Cunnamulla” (2000), see trailers below. Many of his films, often dealing with decolonization, were shown on the international festival circuit, including the Sundance Film Festival.  

Pat Fiske, a fellow Australian documentarian, posted on her Facebook page a brief obit written by Stefan Moore, Martha Ansara, Ruth Cullen and Tracey Spring:

The friends and colleagues of Dennis O’Rourke are deeply saddened by the death of one of the greatest documentary makers of his generation. Dennis died of cancer on June 15 in his home in Cairns surrounded by his partner Tracey Spring and his five children, Bill, Davy, Celia, Xavier and Sophie. 

His unique cinematic style defied conventional narrative and notions of objective reality in pursuit of larger truths about the human condition. As an artist with exceptional vision, he was passionate, argumentative and courageous and his documentaries were provocative and often controversial. 

Dennis’s documentaries, including Yumi Yet, Half Life, Yap: How Did You Know We’d Like TV, Shark Callers of Kontu, Cannibal Tours, The Good Woman of Bangkok, Cunnamulla, and Landmines: A Love Story are all imbued with exceptional insight, wry humour and a deep love of his subjects. His films, especially The Good Woman of Bangkok and Cunnamulla generated huge discussion and are studied in film courses around the world. 

For Dennis, making documentary films was an intuitive process of discovery. He encouraged younger filmmakers to follow their own muses and resist pressure from television broadcasters looking for reality TV and other formats that he said had nothing to do with documentary or the pursuit of truth. He was a man of great compassion and a deeply loving father. He will be greatly missed.

According to his biography on Wikipedia, O’Rourke was born in Brisbane and raised in a country town until he was sent to a Catholic secondary boarding school. In the late 1960s, after two years at university, he traveled in the Australian Outback, the Pacific Islands and South East Asia, working as a farm hand, salesman, cowboy, roughneck on oil rigs and maritime seaman. He taught himself photography and moved to Sydney where the Australian Broadcasting Corporation employed him first as an assistant gardener and later a cinematographer.

He lived from 1974-1979 in Papua New Guinea, which was in the process of decolonization, working for the newly independent government and teaching documentary filmmaking. His first film, “Yumi Yet: Independence for Papua, New Guinea,” was well-received in 1976.
Retrospectives of O’Rourke’s work have been held at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Pacific Film Archive in San Francisco and many other cities; his films have earned many prizes and he has accepted many achievement awards.

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