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Documenting a David-and-Goliath Battle

6 September 2016 at 10:58 am
Wendy Williams
The Opposition tells the story of a David-and-Goliath battle over land in Papua New Guinea, with community leader Joe Moses at the heart of the story in a fight to save a four-generation strong settlement in Port Moresby from being evicted.

Wendy Williams | 6 September 2016 at 10:58 am


Documenting a David-and-Goliath Battle
6 September 2016 at 10:58 am

The Opposition tells the story of a David-and-Goliath battle over land in Papua New Guinea, with community leader Joe Moses at the heart of the story in a fight to save a four-generation strong settlement in Port Moresby from being evicted.

A still from The Opposition showing Joe Moses speaking to the community

Pro Bono Australia has partnered with GOOD PITCH² to shine a light on powerful films that are addressing some of society’s most pressing issues. In the lead up to the GOOD PITCH² 2016 screening event in November we will be speaking with some of the filmmakers about what inspired them to document these issues.

The Opposition director Hollie Fifer was propelled into the story in 2012 when she witnessed, camera in hand, around 100 PNG police, armed with assault rifles and machetes, stand guard as bulldozers began to demolish the homes of settlers at Paga Hill.

She followed the story as Moses battled the courts to protect his community of 3,000 people from being evicted to an industrial waste site to make room for an international five-star hotel and marina being developed by the Paga Hill Development Company.

The documentary explores the intersection of where development projects meet human rights and the importance of protecting the essence of what a community is.

But even after the camera stopped rolling, the action continued. One of the key characters who features in the film, former Papua New Guinean politician Dame Carol Kidu, sought an injunction against the film and Fifer and The Opposition team had to fight for it in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

While the case was ongoing the film screened in a redacted version at Hot Docs 2016 but Fifer and the production companies have since won the case and the full film is set to be released shortly.

Fifer talks to Pro Bono Australia News about the obligation to expose human rights abuse, why we need to put human rights at the centre of development projects and why investigative journalism needs to be encouraged, as dark things happen when there’s no light around.

Why did you choose to focus on this story?

Well, it was an interesting time in PNG politics when I first started making the film which was back in 2012. There was a political coup happening in Port Moresby where there was basically two prime ministers trying to fight for the leadership, and one of them had the constitution and the supreme court behind him and the other one had the army and the police behind him. So I was in PNG but then on my second day filming the demolition of Paga Hill, one of the first demolitions, happened and basically I got introduced to this community. And I kind of just thought I would see a few families with one house and a bulldozer and a policeman, but it ended up being a community of 3,000 people and the police, there were dozens of them with assault rifles and machetes and just completely bulldozing their houses. It was a huge human rights abuse and they open fired on the community and I was able just to capture it, standing right there like a meter away from them.

What was going through your head when the shots started firing? Did you want to run away?

Well it wasn’t actually my nature to run, that’s the interesting part, I surprised myself a little bit I guess. It was more a very, very quick assessment of whether or not I could stay there and keep filming, and I decided that they were much more worried about getting on with their job and demolishing this community than they were worried about me. And so it was basically just, I went back to my training, I just tried to make sure that every shot lasted 10 seconds and that if this was happening right in front of me then I sort of had an obligation to film it. So I surprised myself by not running, I kind of thought that that’s what would happen as well but, I guess no one was running, everybody was curious and wanting to know what was going to happen. Some people were protesting against it and some people were just actively watching in awe really.

Hollie Fifer director of The OppositionWhat themes is the documentary exploring?

Theme-wise it’s really about human rights at the centre of development projects. But it’s also about corporate accountability and social responsibility and how communities and corporates basically need to see each other, and need to be able to basically put human rights as the centrepiece for any development work or international investment work. Because if you don’t… if it becomes between getting something done quickly and human rights abuse, or profits or human rights, then human rights ultimately get ignored. So unless it’s seen as sort of the focal point or as the foundation, then it doesn’t necessarily get adhered to.

But I guess it is also about community and what do we think communities are there for. The Paga Hill community was a really, really safe, vibrant, beautiful, rich place. Somewhere I felt instantly safe, and in a city like Port Moresby, that’s actually quite a big deal. And so I started wondering why, and they had a yoga class, they had fish classes and how to catch your fish for the day, they had the law and order committees, they just had this cohesiveness that I’ve just never witnessed before, so it came apparent to me quite quickly that if this was to go then that is an absolute shame and so it’s not just about trying to protect human rights, but it was also about trying to protect this essence of what a community should function like.

The story is quite specific to PNG but are the themes explored universal?

I think this is happening all around the world. This is just a microcosm of what happened when I went to PNG in 2012 and sort of, like I said, on the second day filming, saw this and just kept going with it. But I could easily have seen the same thing happen, pretty much in any continent around the world, developed or not developed, western or non-western countries. I think in PNG maybe it’s a little bit more blatant, where you see the effects of a community getting demolished for example, right in front of your eyes, a lot of other communities, perhaps it would be done with policy or be done behind close doors and so you wouldn’t be able to document it as clearly, but it is so universal, absolutely.

Did having to fight for the film in the supreme court make you more determined to have the story heard?

That’s interesting. I’m not sure it made me more determined, because I was quite determined beforehand, because I thought of it like an obligation. Once you have a human rights abuse then you sort of have the obligation to expose it. But it did sort of, how would I describe that experience, it was another example of a blatant attempt to stop the public viewing this human rights abuse, and so that, I think in itself, was very surprising. Because she not only wanted to injunct footage of her but all footage that she facilitated me capturing. So because she took me down that day and invited me to the Paga Hill community while it was getting demolished that included that footage and so for us to sort of go, well she’s not actually just angry of her involvement in the film, and footage of her, it’s also any footage connected to her experience. And for that to also be a human rights abuse. It really just seemed, I guess baffling is the right word.

Still from The Opposition of father holding babyThe court case was taking place at the same time as you had your world premiere at Hot Docs, and you had to show a redacted version of The Opposition. How does that fit into a wider discussion about independent documentaries and the challenges of independent journalism.

I think it is a really hard time for investigative journalism and for documentary filmmakers. It’s a time when the big institutions, the big media outlets aren’t necessarily doing that investigative, deep work and I think that that is a symptom of a lot of different causes. But ultimately, documentary filmmakers are increasingly filling that gap and trying to do the investigative exposure work which takes many years to do sometimes, with the amount of research and collecting all of the evidence and the data. But documentary filmmakers don’t have the power of the institutions behind them, and they are more agile for that, but at the same time they are actually more vulnerable for that. So, I really, I felt while we were going through the case that a lot of people were watching what was happening as documentary filmmakers because they wanted to see whether or not this could perhaps be a bit of a precedent within the industry so I’m really glad that the case was in favour of the film’s release, but I’m still really worried about the future of investigative journalism. I don’t think that this is a time where we should be scared about exposing human rights abuses because ultimately dark things happen when there’s no light around, so basically you’ve just got to help protect anyone who is doing that kind of work. You know they should be rigorous, and they should factually check everything and they should protect themselves against security and everything, but ultimately we need to encourage this kind of work.

Do you feel like, particularly with the court case, that you almost became part of the story yourself?

I guess that that is a bit of a nod to the fact that documentaries aren’t separate from the world, they document the world and then they get released into the world. But in a similar way, even the process in which it is made is also just embedded within the same reality that you are documenting. So it is quite hard to say that there is the story and then there’s me, and the film crew and the production and that’s quite different. It all did become enmeshed in that way.

The documentary has now been finished but events are still unravelling and one of the key figures in the documentary Joe Moses is in hiding, are you still following the story?

Yes, absolutely. We are still involved. In the same way, we know where everybody is up to and we’re very curious to see how all the events still unfold, even though the film has finished shooting. I think that there is a lot of fear at the moment happening because, while I don’t want to give away the ending of the documentary, there is a lot of fear happening at the moment, within the community and I guess it is trying to support them as best as possible and I don’t think that there’s a point in which you can say, “Yes I have my human rights and nothing will be able to take them away from me again.” It is just a continual fight to uphold the community’s human rights, and hopefully they can have some compensation for the demolitions that they’ve had over the years, there were many.

Joe Moses in The OppositionWhat impact are you trying to achieve through this film?

The main impact or vision is to make sure that human rights are the foundation for development work internationally. So we’re doing things like trying to protect Joe Moses, trying to call for the community to have compensation for any of the damages that they are seeking in the courts in PNG, we are also trying to get some legal mechanisms in place to protect and safeguard the human rights of communities, because we recognise that this is not just a standalone case. This was one of the first settlements to be forcefully evicted and after this experience there have been a lot of other settlements that have faced a similar experience.

So, it’s really about trying to figure out that there are some safeguards that need to happen to be able to protect the communities and be able to also share that example around, because I think that while it would be great to get some structural change there is also a lot of benefit in using The Opposition as a case study to say “this is what the community did successfully”, “this is what the community did that could have been improved on”, or “this is how a community on the other side of the world might like to change their example”, use it as inspiration but ultimately take charge and find their own way of trying to protect themselves against any abuses that they might be facing. So we’re trying to make it into a kit, which will go out into communities internationally so that they can have those pop up screenings and they can have that experience with The Opposition as a case study. It’s also going to go into universities and have young changemakers, the next generation of Australian business leaders and lawyers, to use the example to make an ethical framework for themselves. We have lots of plans.

What are the key takeaway messages?

I think that the audience will have a very different experience according to who they are. We have a lot of different target audiences that will come to The Opposition in different ways, through different platforms and through different ways that we’re targeting and distributing to them. But I do really hope that the audience ultimately does see The Opposition as some kind of archive of this Paga Hill community and will see it as a case study that people can learn from.

In one community meeting this woman at the Paga Hill Community meeting came up to me afterwards and said, “I’m so glad that you are making this because Australians need to know how we’re standing up for our human rights” and I just remember, thinking, I’ve never spoken to this woman before because there are 3000 people and I couldn’t possibly, but this woman just came up very confidently and just said this and I just thought that is the most concise, beautiful thing that I’ve heard, I’m just going to put that little quote in my pocket and just thanked her and said “ok, yeah, this is necessary, isn’t it”.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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