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 was born in Brisbane in 1945. For most of his childhood, he lived in a small Queensland country town until he was sent to a Catholic boarding school for his secondary education. In the late 1960s, after two years of fruitless university studies, he went travelling in outback Australia, the Pacific Islands and South East Asia, working variously as a farm hand, station hand, seaman, and on oil rigs. He also taught himself photography and moved to Sydney with the dream of making documentary films, eventually becoming a cinematographer in the ABC.
From 1974 until 1979 he lived in Papua New Guinea, which was in the process of decolonisation, teaching documentary filmmaking skills to Papua New Guineans. In 1976 he completed his first film, the widely acclaimed Yumi Yet – Independence for Papua New Guinea.
Dennis shot, directed and in more recent times also recorded sound for his documentaries, achieving high technical standards with relatively simple equipment. 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.
— Stefan Moore, Ruth Cullen, Tracey Spring, Martha Ansara