It’s hardly unprecedented for a documentary to encounter legal challenges based on some of its footage, but the challenge facing “The Opposition” is especially down to the wire: The filmmakers behind the new documentary received notice last Friday that they would not be able to use footage of one its four main subjects, former Papua New Guinean politician Dame Carol Kidu, at the film’s world premiere at Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. The film tells the story of a residents of Port Moresby and their fight to prevent their homes from being leveled at the hands by the Paga Hill Development Company, who wanted to build a hotel and marina on the land.
Back in 2012, when filming commenced, Dame Carol Kidu was one of the leaders standing up for the human rights of the settlers. As she can be seen in this dramatic footage — which was shot as part of “The Opposition” and, according to the film’s producer Rebecca Barry, was posted to YouTube by Kidu herself — Kidu was on the front lines, bravely standing up to armed policemen pleading for the demolition to stop so that residents could get their possessions out of their homes before they were bulldozed.
Since that time, Kidu has switched sides, and has been hired by the Paga Hill Development Company to help with the relocation of the residents. Five weeks ago, with the support of the development company, she brought a legal action against the filmmakers, trying to prevent them from using footage of herself, including onscreen interviews, for which Kidu signed an industry standard release form authorizing the filmmakers to publicly and commercially use the footage. Barry and director Hollie Fifer were aware that Kidu was concerned about the film, but they were caught completely off guard by the lawsuit — which was for breach of contract, not defamation.
“Not only did she sign a release form, she continued to stay engaged and allowed filming,” Barry told Indiewire. “In 2014, she did a final interview with us in which she directly addresses the issues surrounding Paga Hill Development Company and her role as consultant. We also showed her a rough cut, which is extremely rare, a fine cut, we took aboard her feedback, and gave her right of reply at the end of the film in the form of text card. So for her to now say she didn’t know what the film is about, and basically change her mind, sets a really dangerous precedent.”
When the filmmakers were discussing with Kidu about the final coda to the film, they were sideswiped by the lawsuit that claims Kidu was misled about the nature of the film. However, the judge did not rule against the use of any footage in “The Opposition,” but rather that it could not be used prior to a hearing in June.
This left Fifer facing two possibilities: recut her film and present a redacted version at Hot Docs — or wait until after the matter was legally settled so that she could present the full version of the film somewhere else. As the legal battle was brewing, Fifer took the precaution of starting to get her post-production team in place and recruited actress Sarah Snook (“Steve Jobs”) to provide voiceover narrative, which ultimately replaced the nine minutes of redacted footage. Then, once the judge made his ruling on April 23, she and her team worked around the clock for nine days so she could fly with a new version of the film to Toronto this weekend.
“It was a really hard decision because there’s the real film and the redacted version, and I consider them two different pieces,” Fifer told Indiewire. “It’s heartbreaking to know the Hot Docs audience won’t see the real film, but I think there’s an opportunity here to have a wider discussion about freedom of speech and how hard it is for documentary filmmakers to be able to tell [our stories]. In a sense, we are just allowing the process to be transparent.”