Dennis O'Rourke was born in Brisbane. For most of his childhood he lived in a small country town, where his parents ran a failing business, 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. During this period he worked as a farm hand, salesman, cowboy, a roughneck on oil rigs, and as a maritime seaman. He also taught himself photography and dreamt of becoming a photojournalist. Wanting to make documentary films, he moved to Sydney where the Australian Broadcasting Corporation employed him as an assistant gardener. He later became a cinematographer for that organization.
From 1974 until 1979 he lived in Papua New Guinea, which was in the process of decolonisation. He worked for the newly independent government, teaching documentary filmmaking skills to Papua New Guineans. His first film, YUMI YET - INDEPENDENCE FOR PAPUA NEW GUINEA, was completed in 1976, and it was widely acclaimed.
His other films include ILEKSEN - POLITICS IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA (1978), YAP... HOW DID YOU KNOW WE'D LIKE TV? (1980), THE SHARK CALLERS OF KONTU (1982), "...COULDN'T BE FAIRER" (1984), HALF LIFE - A PARABLE FOR THE NUCLEAR AGE (1985), "CANNIBAL TOURS" (1988), THE GOOD WOMAN OF BANGKOK (1991), CUNNAMULLA (2000) and LAND MINES - A LOVE STORY (2004).
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 in other cities, including Freiburg, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Marseille, Melbourne, New Delhi, New York, Singapore, Taipei, and Uppsala.
In 2005, Dennis O'Rourke received the Don Dunstan Award for his contribution to the Australian film industry. His many other awards include the Eastman Kodak award for Cinematography, the Australian Film Institute Byron Kennedy Award, the Director's Prize for Extraordinary Achievement at the Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Prix at the Nyon Documentary Film Festival, the Jury Prize for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival, the Grand Premio at the Festival de Popoli in Florence, the Film Critics' Circle of Australia Award for best Documentary, the Australian Film Institute Best Director Award (for CUNNAMULLA) and the Australian Centenary Medal "for services to Australian society and Australian film production".
Dennis O'Rourke was the father of five children; he lived in Cairns. His final film project, "I LOVE A SUNBURNT COUNTRY..." - a feature film on the subject of "being Australian", as seen through the poetry and poetic imagination of "ordinary" people - was abandoned due to ill-health.
Dennis passed away on 15 June 2013 in Cairns.
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