Dennis O’Rourke’s methods and objects in 'The Good Woman of Bangkok' – a 'Documentary fiction' film?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Life and works

3. The genesis of The Good Woman of Bangkok

4. O’Rourke’s methods and strategies
4.1. Enquiry/ Investment of time
4.2. ‘Engagement’ instead of ‘informed consent’
4.3. Conversations instead of interviews
4.3. Secret Contract, cultural hero / Brecht’s alienation effect
4.4. Documentary fiction
4.5. Truth/ transcendental moment
4.6. Conclusion and objective

5. Theoretic classification
5.1. Documentary vs. fiction
5.1.1. Defining documentary
5.1.2. Is The Good Woman of Bangkok a documentary?
5.2. Modes
5.2.1. Development and description of the modes Poetic Mode Expository Mode Observational Mode Participatory Mode Reflexive Mode Performative Mode Table of Documentary Modes
5.2.2. Categorization of The Good Woman of Bangkok A new mode? The Good Woman of Bangkok: a participatory, reflexive and performative documentary

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Our presentation was about the film The Good Woman of Bangkok, the unique way the filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke made the film and how the critics reacted to these unique methods. When it came to deciding on paper topics, I knew I wanted to write about O’Rourke and his special methods, because I was especially fascinated by the man and his unique methods. I think, it is very interesting to get to know something about O’Rourke’s life fist and how and when the development from a celebrated ‘mainstream’ filmmaker to a much criticized experimental filmmaker took place. Also, it is essential to examine the ideas and opinions that influenced his decision to make such a film. Reading and talking so much about O’Rourke’s special methods and strategies in The Good Woman of Bangkok made me curious about the documentary genre in general, whether this film is indeed so special and if his forerunners were working in a completely different direction? After describing O’Rourke’s methods and objects, I will define ‘the documentary’ and examine the different modes of documentary film to see if The Good Woman of Bangkok actually is a documentary film and if it can be categorized as one of these modes. I hope this will shed some light on the question, whether O’Rourke’s film is as revolutionary as he puts it or if it is fashionable to provoke and agitate the viewers in the documentary genre in general.

2. Life and works

Dennis O’Rourke was born in Brisbane and lived for most of his childhood in a small country town, where his parents ran a failing business. After having completed his secondary education at a Catholic boarding school, he dropped out of University after two years, being “a lousy student” (Hessey 2002: 136) in his own opinion. After that, he traveled in the Australian outback, the Pacific Islands and South East Asia and worked at various jobs such as a farm hand, salesman, cowboy and seaman. Although he was a “nobody” during that time, he calls it “the best years of my life.” He then even was on the edge of criminality, defining it as a “reaction to my family” and an “expressed intention of antipathy to the establishment.” But then he discovered another way, though, another power of expressing his “saving epiphany” (Hessey 2002: 137). He taught himself photography. He feels saved by the art of photography through which he could finally express his emotions.

As a next step, he wanted to make documentary films; that is why he moved to Sydney, starting as a gardener for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and later becoming a cinematographer for the organization.

From 1974 to 1979 he lived in Papua New Guinea, being married to a native from Papua New Guinea, with whom he would spend the next 15 years and have three children. The country was at that time in the process of decolonization at the time. This inspired his first documentary film Yumi Yet – Independence for Papua New Guinea (1976), which “shows the celebration of Independence day on Papua New Guinea through a scurrilous montage of music, voices, radio transmissions and imagines of traditional customs as also of British and Australian colonialism” (Gillner). This film was the start of a series of documentary films about the destruction of the island cultures of Papua New Guinea by the “Western imposition of so-called progress: television, liberal democracy, nuclear testing, international tourism” (Powers 2002: 107). These documentaries, including Ileksen- Politics in Papua New Guinea (1978), Yap... How did you know we’d like TV? (1980), The Shark Callers of Kontu (1982), Half life - A Parable for the Nuclear Age (1985), Cannibal Tours (1988), made him “ a maverick hero and champion for the oppressed”, Souter even goes as far as calling him the “patron saint of the documentary film world” (Souter 2002: 117). Retrospectives of O’Rourke’s works have been held at various documentary film festivals and he has received numerous prices.

O’Rourke wasn’t satisfied with this perfect picture of him as a documentary filmmaker that saves the world though. He started deconstructing the process of making documentary film with Cannibal Tours in 1988. In this film, he first began playing games in terms of representational shifts (cf. Hessey 2002: 135). Instead of just observing the tourists behavior when exploring and photographing the natives, he also includes camera shots over the shoulder of the tourist, from the perspective of the tourist so to say. With that technique he wants to show the audience he is not necessarily something better than the tourists, but he is actually one of them, looking at the natives like at animals at the zoo. He criticizes the documentary filmmakers, which regard themselves as “cultural heroes” and says that, because he has “made some docos about big themes and done them successfully, that same kind of aura has attached to me” (Hessey 2002: 135). With The Good Woman of Bangkok (1989), a film about a Thai prostitute, O’Rourke has finally made the conscious decision to move away from conventional documentaries. He says it is at “the end of a journey” at “the culmination of a personal quest for definition about what one can do with the form of cinema the called ‘documentary’” (Urban 2002: 146).

O’Rourke’s new methods weren’t liked everywhere, especially The Good Woman of Bangkok and Cunnamulla (1999), dealing with racism and ignorance in a small place in Queensland, Australia, provoked controversial discussions about his ethnic morals as a documentary filmmaker.

O’Rourke’s latest film Land Mines- A Love Story was filmed in Afghanistan following the US invasion (and fall of the Taliban), and tells the story of two landmine victims. Currently, he is producing and directing I love a sunburnt Country... which is a feature film on the subject of being Australian, as seen through the poetry and poetic imagination of 'ordinary' people. Dennis O’Rourke is a father of five children and lives in Cairns, Australia (cf. About Dennis O’Rourke).

3. The genesis of The Good Woman of Bangkok

As already mentioned, The Good Woman of Bangkok is an important turning point regarding O’Rourke’s work. He names several reasons for making such an unconventional documentary film. First of all, after working in this field for 15 years, he was dissatisfied with ‘the documentary film’. Interviewed by Urban, he even says: “I find most documentary films are unwatchable and worthless as art in the broadest sense” (Urban 2002: 147). He felt like a lot of pretexts were not being challenged and the films, as the filmmakers (including himself!) made it just too easy to identify with them, made people lose their critical view towards them. Second, he “felt the need to explore all the forms of cinematic expression” (Urban 2002: 147). Documentary films were seen as a strict moral opposition to theatrical entertainment films and so all the fiction film stylistics were banned from non- fiction films, leaving out an enormous potential. Another reason was that after the end of his marriage, his thoughts were revolving a lot around sexuality and relationships between men and women. That exact that topic has never been dealt with in non-fiction films though. Sexual politics have been addressed but he wanted to make a documentary film about sexual love (cf. Urban 2002: 148). It so happened then, that on a stop-over in Bangkok, in the need of refining love as well as testing his new low-cost video system, he decided to record the act of going to a bar and being picked up by a prostitute. But the film was not going to be like numerous others, in which the filmmakers first hypocritically condemn what other men do in Bangkok and then, after their day’s work of filming go to the brothels themselves (cf. Urban 2002: 149). He wanted to “start the other way round” to first admit to your own sexuality and then make a film about it. Luck had it, that he had a little money from the Australian Film Commission’s Documentary Fellowship Scheme, which gave him the chance to make exactly the film he wanted without having to ask for permission first. He admits as well that this was the only way to make “the film which, in all other circumstances, would never be approved for funding” (O’Rourke 2002: 209). Another inspiration for the film, as well as for the title was Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechuan. He had read it before working on the film, and as the main character Shen Tee is also a prostitute he saw the parallel of it being “an ironic parable about the impossibility of being good in an evil world” (Urban 2002: 151) as well as the film. Not only was the play’s content a source of inspiration, but Brechtian theater in general, as well, and much of the film was influenced by these ideas.

4. O’Rourke’s methods and strategies

O’Rourke does not believe in the documentary film as such anymore. The crucial thing for him is to reveal the truth, or moments of truth and to reach that goal, he has developed his own methods and strategies.

4.1. Enquiry/ Investment of time

One of Leaches guidelines, namely the investment of time, is a very important aspect for O’Rourke. But in contrast to classical documentaries, where the enquiry begins with the idea for the film, and is often not even done by the filmmaker himself, O’Rourke was personally interested in the topic, so to say started the enquiry, before even having the idea for the film. And O’Rourke takes the process of enquiry one step further by including himself and his relationship to the subjects in his films (cf. Bayer 2003: 136). For The Good Woman of Bangkok, he already invested a lot of time for choosing the right subject. The plan was actually to “meet bar girls/prostitutes in a manner which is (ostensibly) no different than any of the other 5,000 foreign men” (O’Rourke 2002: 210), but after ‘casting’ in the bars of Patpong for weeks, he decided to only have one subject in his film, Aoi. About her, he says: “I could intuitively feel that she was the woman I needed” (Powers 2002: 104). Having in mind his “shopping list of qualifications” (Urban 2002: 150) he wanted someone with experience in the ‘business’ as well as someone whom he could regard as his equal, who was intelligent and whom he could have a love affair with. He didn’t want her to be a just a victim (cf. Urban 2002: 150). This is another crucial point in O’Rourke’s work; he invests not only time, but also his own feelings. He spent nine months in Bangkok, first ‘casting’ Aoi and then establishing and exploring his relationship with her. Afterwards, editing and post- production took another nine months, including the time he went back to Bangkok to film (or re-film) a few scenes which had “suggested themselves during the post- production” (O’Rourke 2002: 211).

4.2. ‘Engagement’ instead of ‘informed consent’

O’Rourke does not only want to cooperate with the people he films, he wants to develop friendships or even relationships with them. He notes a key point in his film: “Not only did I get to know Aoi very well - a normal thing to happen when one makes a documentary film about a person, and it's always implied - but that she got to know me very well” (O’Rourke, 2002: 214). They were both in love, which made them dependent on each other and consequently equals in each other’s eyes. To ensure Aoi’s cooperation and “to force our relationship beyond the sterile and formally unbalanced arrangement which normally exists between a filmmaker and a subject (especially in this context)” (O’Rourke, 2002: 214), he bought her a rice farm before he even started filming. O’Rourke thinks that without this established co-equality (through intimacy) Aoi wouldn’t or couldn’t have spoken so openly about her life and feelings and also about their relationship and problems. This intimacy makes O’Rourke vulnerable. For him this is the only possibility to give his protagonists some control over the film. In contrast, he does not think that informed consent, which is considered essential today for the ethical filmmaker, is possible. He admits that Aoi didn’t really understand why he was making the film and that that was quite painful for her. But he is of the opinion, that even if the person completely understands the reason of the film and consciously wants to take part in it, that doesn’t change anything about the omnipotence of the filmmaker, mainly because they don’t have any influence on post-production (cf. Bayer 2003: 137).

4.3. Conversations instead of interviews

The intimacy between O’Rourke and Aoi would of course never have been possible if a huge camera team had been around them all the time. O’Rourke made the film as a one-man team, working the camera as well as recording the sound. He didn’t want to be disturbed by other people or by too many technical devices. He further explains that the intimate atmosphere which is necessary for the protagonists to open up to him can only be achieved if he is alone with them. Consequently, he doesn’t do formal interviews where the protagonists feel watched by the camera which is “like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the image and the words” (Hessey 2002: 141), but can just record his conversations with them. This is best illustrated in the most intimate scenes with Aoi in the hotel. There he only uses a video camera to witness “all of Aoi’s outpourings, to her unlocking her innermost secrets” (Urban 2002: 153). He shot these scenes late at night when Aoi had finished work and she was mostly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He knew that that was the time when she was most vulnerable and wanted to talk. But you can hardly call it conversations; O’Rourke describes it as “monologues, with maybe 10 percent reserved as a dialogue” (Urban 2002: 153). Especially the mirror scene, where you first think that Aoi is looking in the camera and talking to O’Rourke and then realize she is talking to herself in the mirror, underlines the monologue character of these scenes. He even speaks of sessions of “psychoanalysis” (Urban 2002: 153), where she could talk about her life as well as about him and their relationship. She mostly speaks in Thai, so that he could only understand what she was saying later when he had it translated in Australia. He compares Aoi’s monologue with a Frieda Kahlo self-portrait, she also doesn’t look at the viewer, but in the mirror. He goes as far as calling the mirror “an extension of the metaphor about prostitution: everything’s unreal” (Hessey 2002: 141).


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Dennis O’Rourke’s methods and objects in 'The Good Woman of Bangkok' – a 'Documentary fiction' film?
LMU Munich
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Katharina Berger (Author), 2006, Dennis O’Rourke’s methods and objects in 'The Good Woman of Bangkok' – a 'Documentary fiction' film?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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