‘Ophir’: strong words which strike at the heart

One billion tons of rock was extracted and 0.6% was used. These are the staggering figures regarding the Panguna mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. The environment has been destroyed along with human lives. People have been humiliated, belittled and manipulated to accept the mine. But the inhabitants of Bougainville fought and won. ‘Ophir’ was awarded the Grand Prize at FIFO 2020.

We are on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. A man flaunts his weapon. Surrender weapons, which everyone is calling for? Definitely not. ‘This weapon was used against the invaders. This weapon is our negotiating power,’ he explains. ‘Ophir’ describes the attempt of an ultra-powerful mining company to take over the residents of Bougainville. It is the story of these Australian shareholders of  BCL (Bougainville Copper Limited) who take every measure to settle long-term in the region, calling upon the services of an anthropologist to write a report setting out in detail all the loopholes to exploit, whether economic, political or social, so that the company succeeds in becoming established. This is about a war. The inhabitants of Bougainville will not be a pushover and take up weapons to defend their land. And win. But they must remain cautious. Now, the Autonomous Bougainville Government wants to resurrect the mining operation. In various government bodies, it is maintained that the population was consulted and wants this reopening. In addition, a law has been written, it will allow an environmentally friendly operation, there’s no question of making the same mistakes, they allege. But in Bougainville, nobody believes them. This law stipulates fines and absurd prison sentences for any inhabitants who dare to refuse to identify themselves and anyone who conducts mining exploration…‘It’s theft’, observes a man from Bougainville. ‘The story of Bougainville is amazing as it’s the history of the world’, explains co-director Olivier Pollet it also demonstrates hope: small players can win faced with giants. Bougainville is an inspiration for nations and communities fighting to save their land.

During a conference in Australia, Olivier Pollet learns of the Autonomous Bougainville Government’s plans and hears them ensure that the population wants the Panguna mine to reopen. He wants to go and look. It took seven years to make ‘Ophir’ with co-director Alexandre Berman. In their film, the inhabitants of Bougainville speak about their past: the Crisis, the name given to the civil war which caused 20,000 deaths; they tell us about their present: accept the deaths of loved ones, accept the ecological disaster, accept to start their life over, the previous one when the garden and the river were adequate to live has disappeared; they describe the future: they won’t take this lying down, they will fight against this mining law. ‘I don’t know about the importance of this paper. I know about the importance of yam, taro and sweet potato. Laws written by man can be changed in the blink of an eye, but you cannot change the laws of nature’, rants Jonah who is discussing with Ruth who has a PhD in linguistics. She has come to alert the residents of Bougainville about what the government is up to. Like Jonah, everyone is talking with common sense and their simple and strong words, resonate for a long time in our hearts. ‘What is important? Money or life? I don’t have any money, I have my garden, I can live’, explains another. A man does a war dance in front of the directors: ‘You’ve humiliated me. You’ve stirred up my blood. You’ve contaminated my brain, paralysed my thought.’ Another is walking in the forest: ‘I’ve planted over a million trees. I produce over 2,000 varieties of seeds. We will revive everything that has been lost.’ Another wonders: ‘Where does God live? It’s a mystery. He lives in the hearts of simple men and not in those of kings on their thrones.’

The beauty, poetry and enlightened philosophy of the residents of Bougainville contrast with the dirt of the mining company and these businessmen with their cynicism, exploiting every possible loophole, destroying people and lands. ‘There are no Europeans or natives, there are people telling their story and they are brilliant. This film is a spiritual journey that returns to what is fundamental per se. Man, land and culture were the cornerstones of their revolution. All is said and done’, explains Alexandre Berman. Looking at the crater created by the mining operation, a man sighs: ‘It’s an ulcer, a living entity cannot resist that.’ The mountain has completely disappeared. ‘It’s sad that they killed it.’ The Earth is alive and it has been long understood by the residents of Bougainville.

Lucie Rabréaud/ FIFO 2020