Land Mines – A Love Story

(Dennis O'Rourke, Australia, 2005)


The juxtaposition in the title is immediately a shock and a provocation: Land Mines – A Love Story. Trust veteran documentary filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke to shove such a contradiction in our faces. As usual, he has chanced upon a human drama that delivers a tough but powerful truth.

Shah and Habiba are a poor couple in Afghanistan, both physically afflicted by the cataclysmic political history of their country. Habiba, a Tajik girl, is the truly feisty one of the pair: although left with only one leg after stepping on a land mine (one of the many which still litters the land), she ventures out daily to beg for money, never once taking the careless abuse of strangers or cops without a verbal fight.

Shah, a former Mujaheddin soldier, is ashamed that his wife must 'go to work' in this way. He does what he can to help Habiba through the administrative system of medical assistance. But no matter the seeming hopelessness of their lives, the affection and good humour passing between Shah and Habiba is always palpable.

As a filmmaker, O'Rourke has sometimes been accused of over-aestheticising his subject matter, especially in the controversial The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991). However, like Fred Wiseman or Chantal Akerman, O'Rourke exercises his right to complement and enhance reality with arresting compositions, camera movements and classical musical selections.

More questionable, in this latest work, is O'Rourke's aping of the contemporary political documentary style of Michael Moore and his many imitators – indulging in facile insertions of newsreel snippets of George W. Bush and his colleagues, or cheesy (but certainly chilling) footage from a Russian archive giving instructions on how to plant land mines.

Land Mines is a good film, but not up to the level of O'Rourke's best. The material is often powerful and touching but also rather thinly stretched, as becomes evident in the unnecessary repetition of classroom scenes where Afghani children are taught to recognise and avoid the deadly mines.

© Adrian Martin May 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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