Detained at Gunpoint While Making Documentary Film

Papua New Guinea fishermen by new Basamuk Refinery built on traditional clan land by China Metalurgical Company for their nickel mine upstream

As a documentary filmmaker for the past 35 years, being detained in a shipping container — at gunpoint — in Papua New Guinea was an unexpected, and frightening, experience.

It happened while filming Standing on Sacred Ground, a four-part series now airing on public television stations nationwide. The films tell the stories of eight indigenous communities around the world resisting threats to their sacred places — the original protected lands — in a growing movement to defend human rights and restore the environment.

The episode Profit and Loss recounts the stories of people suffering health effects from tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada, and those in Papua New Guinea who have been thrown off their land by a Chinese-owned nickel mine.

The most dramatic scene we filmed in Papua New Guinea was a confrontation between native clan leader and landowner Sama Mellombo with a Chinese mining company security team.

Clan leader Sama Mellombo at site of former clan cemetery

While building their refinery at Basamuk Bay, the company dug up a clan cemetery and Sama took us there to tell his story and show us the site. The security team — one with an M-16, another with a shotgun — pulled up just as we were finishing our interview.

They told Sama he was trespassing. He was furious, declaring the land to be his not theirs. We hung back 20 feet and were surprised we weren’t asked to stop filming as an intense, ten-minute shouting match unfolded.

Confrontation between local clan leader and landowner Sama Mellombo and Chinese mining company security team in Papua New Guinea

After filming the scene, we were taken to a makeshift police station inside a shipping container, and detained by China Metallurgical Company’s mine security chief. It was small, dim, and hot, and as the minutes ticked by it got scary for our crew of four. When he could manage it without being detected, cameraman Andrew Black left the camera running.

Here’s a video of what went down inside the shipping container.

You can read the full story here.

Visit the film Standing on Sacred Ground website to learn more, view the trailer, sample scenes and find out when you can view the film series on your local public television station. The national broadcast begins Sunday, May 17 at 9pm ET on The PBS World Channel and runs weekly. Get the broadcast details here.

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