Sign up for weekly updates

The (failed) silencing of "The Opposition"

How documentary filmmakers used black screens & actors to fight legal injunctions that threatened to silence their film.

Community leader Joe Moses (centre) stands with other members of the Paga Hill Community in Papua New Guinea.
Community leader Joe Moses (centre) stands with other members of the Paga Hill Community in Papua New Guinea.

Hollie Fifer/Media Stockade

On 12 May 2012, a community in Papua New Guinea watched in horror as bulldozers demolished their homes, and police opened fire on anyone who tried to stop them.

The Paga Hill community - a settlement of approximately 3,000 people - had lived in the same area of Port Moresby for four generations.

They were a vibrant, close-knit population with their own church, school, theatre, artists and leaders.

When the Paga Hill Development Company set their eyes on the land for a five-star hotel and marina, community members resisted through a variety of peaceful means. They took the development company to court - in fact, all the way to the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea - started an online awareness-raising campaign, and, using art, educated other Papua New Guineans about their pending eviction.

One of the Paga Hill community's major allies at the commence of the struggle was Dame Carol Kidu - a former opposition politician, well-known for her advocacy around issues including domestic violence, poverty alleviation and HIV/AIDS.

Dame Carol Kidu witnessed and protested the first demolition of the Paga Hill community, where she also introduced Australian filmmaker Hollie Fifer to the community.

Fifer gained the community's trust - including that of leader Joe Moses - and proceeded to document their struggle for the following four years, culminating in the production of The Opposition. The film shows how Moses guides his community through the legal battle over the land, and works with local and international allies - such as the International State Crime Initiative Dr. Kirstian Lasslett - to advocate for his community.

In the beginning of the film, Moses expresses how much the support of Dame Carol Kidu means to him and the rest of the community, but this changes in 2013, when Dame Carol Kidu announces she is going to be an intermediary between the Paga Hill community and the Paga Hill Development Company, who had hired her as a consultant, and that she would work on the relocation of the community she had initially fought on behalf of.

The Opposition Trailer 2017 from Beacon Films on Vimeo.

Once in her consultant role, Dame Carol Kidu expressed concern with Fifer's documentary. Despite a thorough and apparently constructive consultation process, six weeks prior to the planned world premiere of The Opposition at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary film festival, the filmmakers were surprised with a legal suit against them. All of the footage facilitated by Dame Carol Kidu, and featuring her, had been injuncted.

In the short time between the injunction and the film festival, Director Hollie Fifer and her team had to decide how to showcase a story that was being blocked.

The day after the film's premiere, and with the legal threats still very much hanging over them, Director Hollie Fifer and Producer Rebecca Barry sat down with IFEX to discuss the Paga Hill community's peaceful approach to resistance, the potentially dangerous precedent their legal case could set, how they managed to show the documentary regardless, and how audiences have responded.

The Opposition premiered in Toronto on 3 May 2016 – coincidentally, World Press Freedom Day.

A lot has happened in the months since the premiere, as each side prepared to go to court. On 14 July 2016, supporters of the filmmakers welcomed the Supreme Court of New South Wales decision, which unequivocally dismissed the Supreme Court of New South Wales Dame Carol Kidu's claim for a permanent injunction preventing Fifer and production company Media Stockade and Beacon Films from screening their documentary.

In response to the decision, Fifer stated, "we are relieved that justice has been served and that audiences around the world will be given the opportunity to see The Opposition and the important story of The Paga Hill Community."

Unfortunately, the filmmakers still face other legal threats.

IFEX's conversation with Rebecca Barry and Hollie Fifer on 5 May 2016:

What’s the Paga Hill community like?

Rebecca Barry: The Paga Hill Community is not a traditional land ownership. It's a settlement, but it's four generations old. They've got a church, they've got a school, they've got artists, they've got an acrobatics group, they make music, they do yoga. It's an extraordinary, vibrant community. And that has been completely obliterated.

Is the demolition of the Paga Hill by a development company part of a larger trend in Papua New Guinea?

Hollie Fifer: It's happening everywhere, but in PNG it's so open that you get to see all the mechanics of it - so it's an interesting case study - and we certainly saw that in this film. We saw the breakdown of the justice system, the breakdown of the police, the breakdown of the government, the breakdown of the lands department, and the breakdown in corporate accountability, but through the eyes of Joe Moses and his resistance.

What was the Paga Hill community’s reaction at first?

HF: On that first day filming - when the police were bulldozing everyone out - the community members had this look on their faces, like "today is our day", because they had seen so many human rights abuses in their history. They knew to fight would mean death, and they didn't want to do that, so they just had to watch, in wonder. They said, "we grew up here. We're not gonna fight you. We've seen too much blood here.”

How did the community feel about the fact that a documentary was being made about them?

HF: The Paga Hill community were very much interested in having an Australian documentary filmmaker tell the story, because their idea was that Australians need to know how Papua New Guineans can defend themselves, that they're not pushovers and they have a voice, but they didn't necessarily have a platform to access Australian audiences.

The most inspiring part about the community was that they were so active in creating an alliance around themselves.

How did you address the initial concerns that Dame Carol Kidu brought forward about the film?

RB: We really wanted her to stay engaged in the film, because we did see her decision to work as a consultant for the Paga Hill Development Company as a pragmatic choice, in that this is the complexity of urbanization. Sometimes that's what you have to do -- make the best out of a bad situation.

HF: Especially when you consider that there are characters like her in every community. That happens around the world. So we were fascinated to be able to document that perspective.

RB: When Dame Carol Kidu expressed her dissatisfaction with the film, we proceeded to go through a vigorous consultation process with her. So, she saw a rough cut of the film. She saw a fine cut of the film. She gave us feedback on that. And we made every single change that she requested. We also gave her a right of reply as a text card at the end of the film.

When did this turn into a legal case against you?

RB: About six weeks ago, I was woken up on Sunday by a couple of messages from Hollie and an email from a journalist, asking us how we felt about the legal case that had been brought against us - and would we care to comment.

Dame Carol Kidu had brought forward an injunction. It's not a defamation suit - it's a claim of breach of contract and unconscionable conduct.

Her argument seems to be based on a claim that she thought this whole thing was just a student film. During the research phase of the film, Hollie was a student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. But we find the claim ridiculous, because we had ABC development money. I was involved, my company, Media Stockade, was involved. Before the first Papua New Guinean shoot, Dame Carol Kidu signed a release form -- an industry-standard release form -- irrevocable, in perpetuity, across all media.

HF: We told her about the funding. We even told her that we had the copyright, personally, not the school.

What kind of footage is being injuncted?

HF: The interesting part of it is that she's not just injuncting the parts of her, but all the footage that she facilitated, which is all the footage in 2012. This includes that violent demolition in May 2012.

RB: The other thing to come out in the court case was that Dame Carol Kidu is being indemnified for costs by the Paga Hill development company - so we think they're paying for her legal team and they have been relentless.

HF: It's quite worrying when you see the pathway. The Paga Hill Development Company is supporting a court case that's trying to injunct the demolition footage, which would hurt their investors.

Hollie Fifer, Director of
Hollie Fifer, Director of "The Opposition"

Hollie Fifer/Media Stockade

How did you respond to the injunction?

RB: We came up with a creative solution, it kind of works. Black screens, text cards at the front, explaining that this footage has been injuncted with the court case. We got an amazing actress, Sarah Snook, to narrate these parts of the film. When we're not allowed to describe, she just says that "this scene has been injuncted." Or she might read from a court document.

HF: These shots are of the worst abuse moments of the demolition. So, you have a black screen and all of a sudden, you have one shot that appears of gunfire and then it goes black again.

How have audiences responded to your approach?

HF: It's really quite effective. It's only increased the statement that we're trying to make. The film says - "here is a human rights abuse that you need to be aware of." And then there's a black screen and you realize that it's being ripped away in front of you as you're watching it.

What has the legal process been like thus far?

RB: We've been hardly getting any sleep and our lawyers have been working around the clock. It's just been really stressful.

What kind of a message does the injunction send to other community initiatives, and the journalists documenting them?

HF: It not only sets a dangerous precedent for the communities, but also documentary filmmakers. If release forms don't provide security, then really - why would we do this? We're on the precipice of documentary filmmaking being completely overridden, which is just a really dangerous precedent.

Latest Tweet:

Problemas de la prensa en #Cuba siguen siendo graves, asegura la SIP @sip_oficial @14ymedio

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.