On Dennis's Work of Art

Book chapter abstract – to be written over the next two months or so…(I hope)

‘Documentary Provocations: Dennis O’Rourke’s Sex Tourism Revisited’

‘I would not recommend that movie as an educational tool’
– Thelma Burgonio-Watson quoted in The Filmmaker and the Prostitute p 128

My proposed chapter revisits Denis O’Rourke’s 1992 ethnographic film
on sex tourism in Thailand. “The Good Woman of Bangkok” is examined in
the light of increased, or at least differently inflected, media
reportage of sex tourists in Asia (cf Gary Glitter in Cambodia and
Vietnam; the controversies over US military personnel in Japan; the
closure of the Subic Bay base in the Philippines). What was O’Rourke
trying to achieve with this film with its ‘Brechtian’ cinematic
apparatus, its theoretical ambiguities, its intentionally provocative
staging? Are the ‘theoretical’ issues, as well as the moral(istic)
conundrums, insofar as O’Rourke was able to broach them, to be
evaluated differently now in changed ethico-political circumstances?
Or does sex tourism, and indeed travel-as-exploitation, continue as
‘business-as-usual’? As Jennie Martin wrote about the film’s
characters: ‘it is the western working class which inherits the role of
colonial rapist’ (Martin 1992 ‘Missionary Positions’ Australian Left
Review, May). Does this position remain valid in response to
O’Rourke’s nuanced argument, or has the subtlety of his theoretical
arabesque always been inappropriate, given the structural conditions
in which the filming, and the treatment of the issues, had to be
played out?

The chapter also takes into account use of the film as a ‘teaching
tool’, in Gayatri Spivak’s sense, in over ten years of Anthropology
classes, suggesting that difficult material can, and in some ways
cannot, provide educational and ethical ‘instruction’.