Filmmaker Holly Fifer's Hot Docs premiere is not the documentary she's spent the last four years making. After a legal injunction forced her to redact major portions of the film, she faces a dangerous legal precedent.
Filmmaker Hollie Fifer spent four years of her life documenting a fierce battle between a group of settlers in Papua New Guinea and a new holiday resort development threatening to evict them from their land in her new film playing at Hot Docs, The Opposition.
For the people of Paga Hill in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the plan for a massive resort and gated community means total displacement from a community they not only call home, but have spent generations building. Fighting alongside them for years has been Carol Kidu, a former politician. Kidu spent much of her political career as an MP in PNG fighting for the rights of the country's disenfranchised women and children. Fifer's film captures Kidu smack in the middle of the battle over Paga Hill, including in a dramatic showdown between heavily armed police officers and the squatters. As Kidu calls the cops' tactics heavy-handed and tries to negotiate calm, it's clear she's invested in the squatters' future.
Or she was, until she was hired by the development firm behind Paga Hill. Fifer claims that despite signing a release form and seeing several rough cuts of the film, after switching sides, Kidu had a sudden change of heart about how she was represented in The Opposition. I mean maybe it's just a coincidence, maybe Kidu was just really taken with the developer's architectural model. But she's also consulted in the past for mining giant Barrick Gold, so her newfound interest in seeing a giant marina monstrosity seems confusing for someone who had campaigned so fiercely for the other side.
"It was quite a baffling thing to hear that she'd become a consultant for the Paga Hill community. I considered her supportive of the documentary and the message and after that she became really antagonistic towards it," Fifer says of the moment she learned Kidu was no longer representing the people of Paga Hill.
In fact, Kidu didn't just change her tune on the film, she sought legal action to block her entire appearance and dialogue in the documentary. On April 22, just a few weeks before the film was set to make its world premiere at Hot Docs, Kidu won an injunction preventing Fifer from airing the documentary with any of Kidu's perspective.
Determined not to lose the project she's spent so many years invested in, Fifer scrambled at the last minute to create a redacted version of The Opposition that has an Australian actress narrate over Kidu's missing moments. "We found out about a week before we had to get on a plane, we were tearing our hair out for bit going, I don't know how to remaster this film in time," she recalls. "But there's a really important message in the film, we had to get it out."
Despite being able to bring a version of her censored feature to the Hot Docs festival, Fifer is still devastated that the original version remains locked up.
"It's heartbreaking... it's definitely not what we consider the real film."
Creative heartbreak aside, the injunction also sets a dangerous precedent for all filmmakers. The ruling on April 22 is temporary, as both sides prepare for a final ruling in June, but if characters with shifting political interests are able to hijack a documentary regardless of the content of the film we're headed for incredibly murky waters. Ironically, The Opposition had its premiere at Hot Docs on World Press Freedom Day.
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