As Hot Docs 2016 was winding down, the festival screened what it called a “censored” version of Australian filmmaker Hollie Fifer’s The Opposition. During an interview, the cheerful, fresh-faced director told me that with her feature debut, “I was trying to make an observational documentary for the first time, which is a departure from my poetic films, but something I really wanted to do. All of my favourite docs are investigative observational portraits of people struggling to get something really, really important done.”
The struggle in The Opposition typifies a conflict playing out all over the world. Property developers are threatening people from an ancient culture, living in a beautiful setting where they were born and raised. Yet another condo development/luxury hotel/golf course/whatever must be erected. In the case of The Opposition, Paga Hill, a Papua New Guinea community, fights to keep its ancestral home led by a charismatic, determined man called Joe Moses.
Whatever the economic arguments of the development company, “Is it okay,” Fifer asks, “that the police opened fire on the community while bulldozing their houses?” The cops started shooting “while the community was trying to get a stay order from the court on humanitarian grounds.” And in fact, when the villagers won a court case, it didn’t make a difference. Moreover, two policemen “came down to Joe Moses’s house, knocked him over the head with their assault rifles, and tried to arrest him.” Later, the police claimed the community leader fired shots, even though nobody has ever seen him near a gun. Moses is now in hiding.
In another nasty twist, Dame Carol Kidu, once the country’s only female member of parliament, backed off from her initial support of the Paga Hill community and started working as a consultant for the developers, ostensibly to re-settle her former constituents. Kidu is responsible for the redacted version of the movie, shown in its world premiere at Hot Docs. She won an injunction against scenes that she appears in, scenes that are now replaced by title cards and voiceover until a hearing that will take place in June.
“It’s devastating for us,” says Fifer. “She signed an industry-standard release form. She was engaged with the documentary for two years. She saw the rough-cut and fine cut; she gave notes. For her to not be involved with the documentary anymore, and to be antagonistic towards it is really quite baffling to us.”
Fifer has had on object lesson in how rough doc making can get. “It’s absolutely the most tough, heartbreaking, challenging career. You have to fight your way through it.” But she has been committed to docs since she “fell in love with the form as soon as someone said ‘What would you like to do?’ It was filmmaking. I picked up a camera when I could afford one and haven’t really put it down since. The stories have just become bigger and more adventurous.”
For Fifer, as for many moviemakers, making documentaries is more than a career. “I think the adventure of it is so enticing. You can travel; you can see corners of the world and meet people in a very intimate way that you just can’t in any other career.”
Once Fifer started filming back in high school, she “hasn’t really done any other jobs besides working for production companies. When I was younger, I worked in a chicken shop until I got burnt all over my arms.” She quit, but the job helped her buy her first camera.
Fifer has travelled to India to make a short film called Children of the Rainbow Circuit, and the Australian outback for Common Ground, a city girl’s initiatory experience of the wild. “That was an important turning point in film for my style,” she says. “There were moments when I really felt I found my feet.”
Fifer needed to be grounded when she filmed the demolition of Paga Hill, and the gunfire started. “The people had to get me out of there because I didn’t even know where I was. I was baffled by the police firing at us, and I was hiding behind a house, wondering how I was going to get out of there.”
Fifer goes deeper into her story: “I was riding adrenaline, heartbeats. I was there to do a job, and my training from film school was always make a shot last 10 seconds, so I was counting in my head: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, trying to just keep the camera steady. That was the trickiest part because you are speeding up and you’ve actually got to slow the footage down.”
Fifer says, “Ill do docs as long as I can until I can’t do them anymore.” Does she see another career option at that point? “I’m interested in where documentary meets law. It’s an interesting collision.”
You’re involved in it right now, I point out.
“Exactly. A few mentors have said, ‘This is just your training to become a lawyer. It’s all good.’” Then she laughs, “I think I’ll take any silver lining we can get, and if that’s one of them, great.”
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.