Dennis O'Rourke

Article Bio Works Projects
colonialism, outsider, prostitution, racism, sexuality
Film (documentary, feature film)
Australia and New Zealand
Brisbane, Queensland
created on:
May 26, 2003
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Dennis O'Rourke
Dennis O´Rourke © Martin Cohen - Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek e.V.


Thrower of stones

You could put it this way: My films are like stones thrown into the middle of the road and which people have to get round.´ (O´Rourke)

Born in 1945 in Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, Denis O´Rourke is one of the most successful and controversial Australian documentary film-makers of recent years. For his socially critical and provocative documentary fiction Half Life and Cunnamulta he received awards at film festivals including those in Berlin, Hollywood and Florence. Dennis O´Rourke focuses especially on fringe groups.
This assessment of his own works is hardly surprising, since Dennis O´Rourke loves to be controversial. His themes and his presentation of them are provocative, and many of his protagonists are social outcasts. Whether O´Rourke shows his relationship with a Thai-barmaid in The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991), the effect of US nuclear-tests in the Pacific on the folk living on the Marshall Islands in Half Life (1985) or reports on the citizens of the Australian township Cunnamulla (1999), O´Rourke´s tales are made up of countless small details with a bearing on morality and truth.

O´Rourke´s first film Yumi Yet (1976) was the first of a series of documentary films about the original inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, and Australia. He is concerned with their repression as also with their economic, social and political problems. Yumi Yet shows the celebrations on Independence Day on Papua New Guinea through a scurrilous montage of music, voices, radio transmissions and images of traditional customs as also of British and Australian colonialism.

In Ilkesen (1978) he shows the chaos during the first independent election campaign on Papua New Guinea, as the inhabitants try to import the British electoral system. Yap... How did you know we´d like TV (1980) questions the political and social consequences of introducing TV to the island. Couldn´t be Fairer (1984) is about racism, alcoholism and the continual political repression of the Australian Aborigines.

O´Rourke has received many awards like the Peace Film Prize of the Berlinale in 1986 for his documentary film Half Life, which he had made half a year earlier. He also won the Award of the Readers´ Jury of the city magazine Zitty. Half Life is one of O´Rourke´s most controversial films and describes the effects of an American hydrogen bomb dropped in the Pacific in 1954. Since the civilian population had not been evacuated in advance, it caused many residents to die, in some cases after decades of suffering. With real material, O´Rourke shows the cynicism and fraudulence of the big players in world politics.

His documentary Cannibal Tours (1988) is about the supposed ignorance of ´underdeveloped´ cultures. A group of European tourists go on an anthropological trip in Papua New Guinea and meet the ´primitive´ inhabitants. Despite initial prejudice they finally realize that the distinction between primitive and civilized cultures is questionable.

For the way in which he shows minorities, O´Rourke has often been criticized. Especially his films The Good Woman of Bangkok (1992) and Cunnamulla (2000) have raised storms of controversy. While some of his critics admire his closeness to his protagonists, others have accused him of generalizing and creating stereotypes.

The Good Woman of Bangkok is a good example of the way in which O´Rourke´s approach disregards the usual rules of documentary film-making. The location is Bangkok, the Mecca of sex-tourism, and the theme is O´Rourke´s affair with a prostitute on his quest for true love. Critics of his probing research countered that he was only hitting rock bottom, exploiting a woman and deceiving himself.

Racism and ignorance are the main themes of O´Rourke´s latest film Cunnamulla, named after a small place in Queensland, Australia, where it was filmed. The film shows a discussion between two young girls about sex, a boy talking about his first stay in prison and a local radio-announcer talking his big dream of having a television career in Townsville. In 2001 this film received the Hollywood Discovery Award for the best documentary. The jury especially mentioned the astonishing frankness of the persons in front of the camera.

Events at the HKW:

Das Bild fremder Kulturen im Film (The Image of Alien Cultures in Films): a film-series accompanying the exhibition Der geraubte Schatten (The stolen Shadow)
Saturday, 24th March, 1990
Shark Callers of Kantu

Sunday, 8th April, 1990
Half Life

Organizer: House of World Cultures

Wednesday, 23rd October, 1991
Wednesday Cinema
In the Jungle
Cannibal Tours

Wednesday, 20th May, 1992
Wednesday Cinema
Dirty Dozen
Half Life

Wednesday, 24th May, 1995
Wednesday Cinema
Documentary films:
The Good Woman of Bangkok

Author: Gabriele Gillner 


Dennis O’Rourke was born on 14th August 1945 in Brisbane, Australia. He spent most of his childhood in townships out in the country before visiting a Catholic boarding school. In the mid-sixties he broke off his course of study after two years and traveled into the outback, to islands in the Pacific and to south-east Asia.

He earned his living as a farmhand, salesman, cowboy and oilworker on a rig and got on board a ship as a sailor. During this period he taught himself photography and began to work as a photo-journalist. In 1970 he went to Sydney in the hope of making films, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation took him on as a gardener and then as a cameraman.

O’Rourke lived from 1975 to 1979 in Papua New Guinea, which at the time was being de-colonized. He worked for the new, independent government and taught the inhabitants the techniques of film production. He finished his first film, Yumi Yet - Independence for Papua New Guinea, in 1976. The film was widely discussed and received many awards.

Dennis O’Rourke is the father of five children and lives in Canberra, Australia.



Film / TV,

Homo Heights

Film / TV,

The Pagode da Tia Beth

Film / TV,

The Good Woman of Bangkok

Film / TV,

Cannibal Tours

Film / TV,

Australian Daze

Film / TV,

Half Life – a Parable for the Nuclear Age

Film / TV,

Couldn’t Be Fairer

Film / TV,

The Shark Callers of Kantu

Film / TV,

Yap ... How Did you Know We’d Like TV

Film / TV,

Ileksen – Politics in Papua New Guinea

Film / TV,

Yumi Yet – Independence for Papua New Guinea

Film / TV,


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

The Image of Alien Cultures in Films

(13 March 90 - 15 April 90)