Hollie Fifer on documenting the David and Goliath struggles of locals versus industry in Papua New Guinea. By Jennifer Down.

Documentary filmmaker Hollie Fifer

The handheld camera lurches and settles on the demolition. Hungry machines scrape away at houses. Evicted residents watch on, struck mute with horror. Armed police officers guard the scene to ensure the machines can do their work. Great sheets of corrugated iron and palm leaves fall to the ground. “This was my house,” says a man. “I am the owner of this house.” The tenses are confused: his house is transmuting from present to past before his eyes.

The opening minutes of Hollie Fifer’s debut feature documentary are harrowing. Billed as a David-and-Goliath fight, The Opposition examines a battle between the Paga Hill community on the Port Moresby peninsula and developers seeking to replace their homes with a five-star hotel and marina wharf.

Many of the documentary’s opening scenes were shot by Fifer in 2012 on her second day in Papua New Guinea, where she’d gone to research the political coup. Instead, she found herself accompanying Dame Carol Kidu, then-leader of the country’s opposition government, to Paga Hill, where 100 policemen armed with firearms and machetes had descended on the community as their homes were bulldozed. Encouraged by residents to film the demolition, Fifer eventually met Joe Moses, a community leader whose own house had been destroyed. Joe was struggling to stop the 3000 Paga Hill residents being forcibly removed from their homes. Joe is the documentary’s driving force, its hero. He engages as allies Kidu, academic Dr Kristian Lasslett and pro bono lawyers. But the community is fighting a losing battle. Kidu unexpectedly resigns as opposition leader and takes up a position as a consultant for the very development company trying to evict the residents. The government enters into a profit share with the company.

The Opposition premiered last year at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. It wasn’t the original – or complete – version. Prior to its release, Kidu sought and won an injunction against Fifer, and the film was shown with a blank screen for the many redacted scenes, with narration by actress Sarah Snook. There was a court case. Fifer’s mother, among others, had to testify. “The hard drive was still warm when I took it to the airport,” Fifer says. “We’d finished [the edited version] about six hours before flying to Toronto.”

Surely, I say, there was a point at which it all seemed too hard. “The injunction was not just footage [of] Dame Carol, but all the demolition footage, which is a human rights abuse,” Fifer says. “There’s never an option in which you wouldn’t fight for the public to see that. In that sense, I don’t think the redacted version was a handicap for us. We tried to be transparent. We could open it up to the audience and say, ‘You’re watching a film get taken away in front of you.’ ” She pauses. “We didn’t really have a choice, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard.”

Fifer has a deliberate, articulate manner of speech. She’s also thoughtful, occasionally stopping herself mid-sentence to offer a better analogy. She rarely rushes to answer a question, even when it’s clear she’s already meditated on it. She describes filmmaking as a slow process. “Like kneading bread. And you’ve just got to hope that it rises.” Making a documentary, she says, was the natural way for her to process everything she’d witnessed. “It’s like having a diary of your experiences,” she says. “My last four years were all played back to me, and that was, in itself, processing. Then watching the film and talking about it with Joe and everyone else, that’s another kind of processing.” She acknowledges, too, the privilege inherent in being an observer, an outsider: the eventual ability to step back and take an analytical view of trauma. “The Paga Hill community themselves – they went through it, but they didn’t get to watch all of that footage again. That’s their home.”

The conflict at the heart of The Opposition, which opens at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne, takes on an almost metonymic quality. Fifer has evidently spent much time contemplating the events at Paga Hill and her role in them. I ask whether she had any hesitations about how best to tell the community’s story, and her place there as a white filmmaker. “You need to be invited by a community. It comes from them initially.” Fifer was invited, ironically, by Kidu. She began filming the demolition. “The community residents were encouraging me to be there and to keep filming as the police opened fire on the community residents. Then when I met Joe, he told me it was an Australian-run company who was behind it. I was thinking, ‘What is this story, and what is my role in this story? I’ve captured this, so I’m now connected to this community in some way.’ ”

I’m loath to draw attention to Fifer’s age, because youth is no obstacle to talent, tenacity or hard work. But at 28 she’s a potent rebuttal to the caricature of the apathetic millennial. “I’m not sure what it feels like to be older than I am,” she says, laughing. “A lot in The Opposition just felt like the first time I was going through something. It was constantly pushing through obstacles. I guess that’s filmmaking in general – circumnavigating problems. The Opposition gave me that skill set, but it also gave me post-traumatic stress, which is a hard thing to work through while having to do more filming and analyse it further. The rabbit hole starts eating you.”

Throughout the filmmaking process, Fifer had a vision of a runaway horse and carriage. “I was running behind it, trying to catch up to it. I was meant to be driving it, and everyone thought that I was driving it, but I was just trying to keep it in my vision and make sure it didn’t get too far away from me.” There’s premeditation to her work, she says, but it’s mostly gut instinct – going with what feels right. “I don’t really know what it is that I’m trying to say until I’ve said it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2017 as "Opposition leader".

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