Papua New Guinea Mine Watch
January 9, 2012

Color Change, a new documentary from Front Yard Films, is a testimony to the wrong done by BHP Billiton to the people of the Western Province of Papua New Guinea and the deceit and genocide that preceded BHPs exit from the mine.

The feature length documentary follows a team of landowners who challenge the large Australian-based mining company, BHP as it goes about securing guarantees of total immunity against legal action following years of environmental damage to the land and rivers of the people of the remote Western province.

The film has been shown at the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival, the Southern Hemisphere’s leading film festival with an environment focus, and is also being edited to a shorter duration for television.

The story

In a remote Papua New Guinea province the landowners are in a complex struggle with a multinational over their rights and their environment. By 2001, BHP had dumped billions of tonnes of tailings from the Ok Tedi copper mine into the Ok Tedi and Fly River systems.

In 1994, the company was stunned when landowners successfully enlisted the support of Australian lawyers to prosecute a class action because of environmental devastation of their land.

By 2000, after dishonoring an out-of-court settlement to clean up the river, BHP decided to exit the mine. As part of the plan, BHP ‘gave’ its fifty two percent share of the Ok Tedi mine to the Papua New Guinea Government as a gift. In return, they demanded a guarantee of total immunity from prosecution by landowners. The company set out on a campaign to get signatures from local people on their exit documents.

Many villagers, their food supply poisoned by mine pollution and dependent on compensation payments, are strongly attracted to BHP’s offers of money and community projects. A small group of landowners – the protagonists in the film – desperately try to convince local people, lured by company promises, not to sign their rights away.

As pressure builds in the final and secretive stages of BHP’s exit negotiations, confusion reins, divisions grow and death threats are reported. Our protagonists are devastated when village leaders – flown in by company helicopters and feted at company expense – blindly sign the exit agreement.

Disillusioned, some leaders try to give evidence of the methods used by company representatives to get their signatures, but to no avail. The agreement has already been passed into law.

The environment and the people of the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers are slowly being poisoned as the mining operation continues to operate ‘as normal’.

Watch a promotional clip –

Directors statement

The idea of this story is to convey a reality that exists for the people of the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, to this day.

My interpretation of this chronicle of genocide is informed by the stories told by the people themselves and the beliefs, frustrations and hopes they expressed.

The inspiration for the title, Color Change comes from the descriptions they gave of the changes to their natural environment since the mine began discharging mine tailings directly into the rivers. This also inspired the treatment of the images of the film that come in three natural parts.

Part 1, the Prologue, is depicted by a warm almost surreal atmosphere, contained and restricted by the square-like 4:3 framing, which symbolises the escalating situation for the communities along the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers.

Part 2, the central story, uses normal color balance and the benefit of the 16:9 wide screen, to invoke space and normality, suggestive of the hope among the film’s protagonists and their supporters that something good may come of it all.

Part 3, the steel cold look, symbolizes the realisation that bigger forces are at work to disempower people challenging the mine’s modus operandi and continue to cause the destruction of the land.

The music composed by Phillip Houghton, is poetic, haunting, gritty, and in your face most of the time. It is a break away from the heroic overtones of music heralding adventure and the conquest of the wild in a far away country, used in the promotional film produced by BHP, an excerpt of which features in the film’s opening.

Houghton’s music also acts to remind the audience of the workings of a mine, a confronting noise caused by equipment – trucks, bulldozers, explosions – to which local people are exposed daily.

This is perhaps a dark film, but as a lawyer in the film says, ‘the difference between success and failure in this sort of case, is who can exert the greatest economic influence on the outcome.’

The film serves as a testimony to the wrong done by BHP Billiton to the people of the Western Province of Papua New Guinea.

But it also acts as an alarm bell, to warn people of what is to come for all of us if respect is not shown towards local indigenous peoples and their environment.