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Hollie Fifer: In Favour of Factual Filmmaking

The work of documentary filmmaker Hollie Fifer has been recognised the world over. Since completing the Graduate Diploma in Documentary in 2012, the AFTRS alumna’s debut feature-documentary The Opposition premiered at Hot Docs and IDFA in 2016, before winning the Grand Prize at FIFO, screening at the UN Human Rights Council, and winning Best Documentary Feature at the Oz Flix Independent Film Awards. She is Co-Director of The Artists Guild, developed the expansion of Good Pitch in the Pacific region, Director of Schoolhouse Studios and, most recently, Hollie was selected for MECCA Shark Island M-Power Program, Doc Society’s Global Impact Producers Squad and she joined the Board of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).

AFTRS’ Melba Proestos caught Hollie for a quick chat between classes to discuss the genre she has dedicated her life to.

MELBA PROESTOS: Why have you chosen a career in documentary filmmaking? What is it about documentary that appeals to you more than any other style of storytelling?

HOLLIE FIFER: To be quite honest, documentary was the only thing I started and didn’t quit. It’s addictive enough to hold you captive and interested in your entire life. I don’t think I’ll ever not have the love for documentary. As a teenager, I kept trying things and trying things but nothing stuck. The only thing I didn’t put down was my camera. Now I’m here 15 years later. Documentary allows me to be curious about life, to admit that I don’t know. Whereas, I didn’t like fiction filmmaking because it assumed I would know the answer by the time I wrote the script. Documentary allows you to completely launch yourself into the unknown, follow life and the adrenaline of life’s momentum. I love following a story or a set of characters that takes you somewhere, that surprises you. I like that documentary talks back to you. You have to keep listening – that’s the only way you know how to keep going forward.

MP: How do you stay true to your vision from the concept stage to the end? Or is it more important to follow the story wherever it may lead you, even if it’s somewhere entirely unexpected?

HF: Yeah. Absolutely! Actually, we just finished a class with the AFTRS Master of Arts Screen Documentary students and that’s exactly what we were talking about. Trying to be very clear at identifying what your motivation for making a story is – what is that original idea? That way you never lose sight of that golden nugget of the idea. And yet, we also need to open it up so that you can keep listening so that you can be proven wrong if you need to be. That’s the tension. Like a few great filmmakers that have said, if your documentary ends where you thought it would, then you weren’t listening along the way. Be true to yourself in your motivation for making it, but be prepared to throw yourself in and be surprised.

MP: Filmmaking seems to be more competitive than ever – anyone with a mobile phone can produce content. How do you ensure that your projects don’t get lost in the seemingly endless stream of new works?

HF: I don’t like the notion that the filmmaking industry is competitive, I think that’s one way of looking at it. But it can be destructive to everyone within the industry. Instead, what if we think of the industry more like an abundant place to work. A place of collaborations with peers. It’s a hard gig – really hard sometimes. Yes, while you’re sometimes going for the same opportunities as other filmmakers, you also need each other’s support through that process. This is especially true when something… an obstacle that has never happened to you before, some other filmmaker has already dealt with it – reach out to them, ask for advice, seek help, don’t be alone.

MP: Has the increased accessibility of other filmmakers or potential subjects, that has come with the social media age, made it easier to develop these networks and collaborations?

HF: One thing that definitely helped my process in filmmaking is the rise of impact documentaries through the Good Pitch Australia process – that’s where I learnt about the art of impact producing and felt supported. I learnt how you can use a documentary as a tool to be able to build a partner and support network around you as a filmmaker. For example, the last feature documentary I made was called The Opposition and it’s no secret that we had quite a lot of legal trouble when we spoke truth to power through a documentary. Thankfully, we won the court cases and the film went onto have great distribution and impact through now over 35 countries. But the point is – we could never have done that alone. For example, we had a team of pro-bono lawyers. That’s something I didn’t know that you could do in documentary – collaborate across industries with shared vision and goals. It’s incredibly impactful.

MP: What are the traits that make someone an exceptional creative leader? Do you think they’re inherent, or is it something that can be taught?

HF: I think people have a draw to the authentic and the real. Maybe that I’m biased because I like documentary so much. Also that you don’t need to be all things all the time – its more powerful to identify your strengths and your weaknesses then find people around you that can help you fill some of those gaps. Just do the best you can and stay open, communicative and trust your instincts and values.

MPs: Is that a lesson you learned the hard way?

HF: I’ve had a bit of a baptism of fire in my career especially with The Opposition. What I learned was that you can’t be brave and alone at the same time. I think there’s this misconception that to be a documentary filmmaker, you need to grab a camera, you need to catch a plane solo, go do this brave thing to try and prove yourself in the world. But actually, that’s naivety. That’s a misconception of what courage and bravery are, and how to make documentary films. It’s not at all helpful to try and be brave without a support network. That’s a sure way of getting burned out. And to destroy yourself faster than you can ever build a career up.

MP: What can current students do while they’re here to really get the most bang for their buck? They’re here for two years, and they can work on their capstone project, of course, but what else can they do to make the most of the facilities, the access to the staff and industry that they might not have access to when working independently? What are the hacks?

HF: The hack to AFTRS is to not overthink it. To not let anxiety stop you or paralyse you, because AFTRS is a little bit of a dream factory. To make the most of it, you just need to do and to not worry about doing the perfect thing. You just need to keep doing so that you can experiment, you can make mistakes. You can learn from them, quickly do something else. But always keep going.