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A town like Cunnamulla

Kirsten Krauth


Kellie-Anne & Cara, Cunnamulla Kellie-Anne & Cara, Cunnamulla
Dennis O’Rourke
The tourist brochure reckons all roads lead to Cunnamulla, a day’s drive from Brisbane, Sydney or Adelaide. It’s famous for a Slim Dusty song (Cunnamulla Feller), the Annual Lizard Races at Eulo and this documentary which, in true blue style, caused a media blitz and recriminations on A Current Affair, mainly from people who hadn’t seen the film. Local Councillor Jo Sheppard argued the townsfolk felt betrayed and angered by the portrayal: “It’s being presented as a documentary and the title is Cunnamulla. My concern is that people who watch it will presume it is an accurate reflection of life” (James Clark. “The man who betrayed a town like Cunnamulla”, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 16 2000).

Ahhhhhh O’Rourke. You’ve done it again...and how little the debate has changed (in the mainstream media anyway) since the lessons of The Good Woman of Bangkok. The tenuous relationship between filmmaker and subject, the subtle blending of fiction and non-fiction, the prevailing sense that the documentary maker should be morally responsible, “a social worker with a camera” (John Power, “An Unreliable Memoir” in Chris Berry, Annette Hamilton & Laleen Jayamanne, eds, The Filmmaker and the Prostitute, Power Publications, Sydney, 1997) are ideas that O’Rourke has explored, embraced and headbutted throughout his career.

From 18 to 24 I was on the lam. I was nobody, I was nothing. I was shoplifting to eat...

A quote not from Cunnamulla but from O’Rourke. He goes on to say, “They were the best years of my life. The criminality was an expressed intention of antipathy to the establishment” (Ruth Hessey, “Bad Sex”, The Filmmaker and the Prostitute). Brought up in a working class family in a country town in rural Queensland, where he went to school with Aboriginal children and had “no exposure” to the arts, you hear his documented comments iterated throughout the film. Paul, the young Aboriginal man heading for jail, says he’s had “no culture or nothing”. Neredah says, “if you’re a good dog I’ll give you that”, and we wonder whether she’s speaking to the filmmaker or her blue heeler, both out of frame, patiently waiting for rich morsels and cold Christmas leftovers.

I can’t stop thinking about Neredah, wife of taxi driver Arthur. And Herb, scrap merchant: proudly displaying his bullet-ridden speed signs. And Marto, local DJ: “I don’t like the drugs but the drugs like me.” And Jack, a dark embodiment of the father in The Castle: sitting in front of his fan, relaying grim visions. And Paul, not really worried about going to jail, while we see his sister cry. And Irene, toothlessly singing “One Day at a Time” to Neredah, who says, “Jesus wants Irene for a sunbeam.” And a puppy, screaming, shot and dumped: I shield my eyes from the festering Animal Tip. And the spindly Aboriginal boy who carefully points to a dead lizard on the road with his toe: “someone ran over him...I felt bad cos I like lizards.”

I can’t stop being moved. I can’t stop asking why we can’t make heaps of good Australian drama/comedy with lives like these. Strong and striking and structured, with hyperlinks as seductive as Short Cuts or Magnolia. O’Rourke’s intense sense of these fragile networks means Cunnamulla is a knockout. It is stylistically rigorous—an extreme closeup of a character’s face means we imagine she is talking directly to us, filtered through the filmmaker. It is a shock when the camera does a slow sensuous pan to reveal a best friend, or boyfriend, or father—maybe, but not always, watching or listening. Palpably present. Out-of-the-frame becomes acute; we are sharing this making with others in the town. This style offers absolute intimacy, in complete harmony with the fierce loyalties of a drifting generation, lying on their beds in the sweltering heat, languorous limbs thrown over bike handlebars and each other.

Most of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the film centred on Cara and Kellie-Anne, teenage girls speaking unguardedly (or perhaps exaggerating for the camera) about their sex lives. Nothing they say will come as a shock to any girl who’s grown up in a small town (and probably not to most teenagers anyway) but what’s interesting and frightening is the hostile reaction to the film propagated by the argument (mainly put forward by Cara’s father) that O’Rourke made his daughter out to be a “slut” (a shot of graffiti—“Cara is a slut”—illustrates that this perception/lie existed in the town prior to the film). The media attention surrounding this notion of young women as ‘sluts’ illustrates not only a father’s obvious shame (and denial) but, more importantly, a collective irresponsibility and reluctance to confront the heart of the issue. These girls expose the hypocrisy inherent in community attitudes and the men’s and boys’ actions/beliefs; the old double standard that never seems to die. These girls are given a voice. They seem to relish it and no wonder.

In Cunnamulla the boys express their desires with “gissacrackatcha.” The difference between those who are “careful” and “not careful”? The careful ones try not to ejaculate inside. (A Current Affair didn’t bother examining why the safe sex message hasn’t reached rural Queensland). Eventually, the boys seem to wear them down. As Kellie-Anne says, “we’d rather be friends.” The girls play up for O’Rourke—freckled, apologetic, coy, delirious, giggly, upfront, naïve, wise, embarrassed, naughty—but what we see is their constant, unswerving desire to get out as their faces turn, in sync, to the louvered slats each time a car hurtles down the street.

The annual lizard race features on the Country Link brochure. “The most boring entertainment I’ve ever witnessed,” according to Neredah, who’s seen a lot; she observes for a living. Local contestants are rounded up and placed in a large circle. First to the line wins. No worries, this’ll be a quickie, but what happens? Overcome by collective inertia, they will not, cannot, move. A man stomps. Nothing. Is it lethargy, fear or an attempt to fit in that’s holding them back? Cara and Kellie-Anne know the answers but they’re in a bus heading to the big smoke...

The townsfolk of Cunnamulla should not feel betrayed. This careful and intricate portrait has enough shards of joy to make it one of the most elegant and absorbing Australian films in a long time.


Cunnamulla, writer/director Dennis O’Rourke, distributor Ronin Films; currently screening in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane with Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and regional cinemas to follow February-April. Dennis O’Rourke will be a guest at the Australian International Documentary Conference in March (see p15); Cunnamulla Visitor Information Centre, tel 07 4655 2481

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 14

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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