December 8, 2002
Showing free movies in Fiji: Is he an ugly American?
By John Pierson, Special to The Times
Showtime. Saturday night. As I stood in the funky lobby of Fiji's 180
Meridian Cinema, Vin ("XXX") Diesel coolly played his "new breed of secret
agent" to a full house inside. I was not cool. I was squirming because I
actually thought I might go to jail for refusing to charge admission at my
That's right, $2 or else! In four months, I've learned two things at the
world's remotest movie theater. First, not everybody in Fiji likes free
movies. Second, when a movie is as bad as "Men in Black II," you can't
give it away on an island with no other entertainment options.
Some Catholic priests were up in arms because, to their thinking, free
movies encouraged a backsliding, handout mentality. Earlier in the day, my
wife Janet and I sat down to talk with them "the Fijian way." That means
nonconfrontational. They said, "You must stop free movies." Or what? "You
must stop free movies now." What would Vin do?
They sought to forge an alliance with this small island's most powerful
political figure, the district officer. On that Saturday, I had no clue
how much support the priests had gathered. Rumors abounded. Police trucks
seemed to be passing slowly every few minutes. All because of the L.A.
Sota tale. In Fijian, this is a gentle promise at parting -- "see you
again." Sota tale. That's how I closed a first-person account I wrote for
these pages in July just before moving to the garden island of Taveuni
with my family for a year. Sota tale. Some of our new neighbors took it as
a warning that I'd write more. Well, helloooo, neighbors.
I guess I've learned a third lesson. You should never write the words,
"We'll compete for those souls" when comparing a free movie theater with
the local Catholic church. They took it literally. I should have
remembered, even in America, humor and religion don't mix. I had a
ringside seat for the crusade against Kevin Smith's "Dogma."
On bizarre time delay, my words had been discovered, copied and
misrepresented in a tropical witch hunt. My unflappable 12-year-old son
Wyatt happily attends the Catholic Mission School, a hot spot for daily
rumors about his dad. His dad took naked pictures of Fijian kids. His dad
raped a Fijian girl. Or, much more amusing to me, his dad killed a man
back in America (maybe in Reno, just to watch him die?).
With pride of authorship, I posted The Times article outside the 180
Meridian Cinema, headlined "Read All About It."
Maybe I did arrive here feeling like the Easter Bunny while acting like
the Ugly American. I never asked anyone if I could, or should, show free
movies -- except, of course, every official government agency. And I'm
truly sorry about playing "MIB II" and "Stuart Little 2," the latter
starring Geena Davis and, according to Fijian kids, "a rat." (No apologies
for our blockbuster, "The Scorpion King.")
So what exactly happened?
Tutu is a Marist Brothers retreat and training center midway between our
house and the cinema. Tutu godfather M.T. McVerry, a rugby fan who
insisted I shouldn't quote him, and his Tongan sidekick Father Ekuasi made
it crystal-clear they found my writing "degrading, undignified,
exploitative and selfish." Our cinema was "supernatural and cult-like."
For what, "E.T."?
When I pointed out that the request to stop free movies felt like a
bully's threat, Father McVerry set me straight: "No, you are a threat to
family life." Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition from an Irish
clergyman. I could have mentioned the shelves of books that describe how
well-meaning missionaries have, for centuries, undermined many traditional
Pacific Island cultures. But it was time to go.
Despite McVerry's claim of "widespread distaste and dissatisfaction" with
free movies, I learned of a very different reality when I was able to meet
with the district officer the following Monday morning. Noa Tokavou is an
educated, politically astute Fijian who wears the traditional sulu. At
that moment he had his hands full with an enormous pending decision about
who was the rightful "king" of northern Taveuni, the Tui Cakau.
It turns out McVerry was the only person to complain, and Noa wanted
nothing to do with him. He understood that I was writing for an American
audience, although he (like many others) was a bit miffed that I said
there was virtually no TV in Taveuni. Apparently, it's a point of pride
and a sign of progress around these parts that Fiji's one channel is
available in 16% of Taveuni's households.
No jail for me. Father McVerry had overplayed his hand. I went straight
from the D.O.'s chilly air-conditioned office to the spectacular veranda
of the Wairiki Catholic parish house, home base for the parish head,
Father John Crispin. I've come to understand that most of those who don't
like free movies just plain don't like movies. Not so Father Crispin, an
unusually urbane and enlightened priest for any country.
Here was an ally, even a soul mate. Early in his ministry, he'd traveled
to remote villages that had never seen a movie. He hauled around a
16-millimeter projector that he could hook up to a generator in his Land
Rover to show "The Sound of Music," John Wayne westerns and, best of all,
those risque Elvis Presley flicks.
One time he was showing a movie he hadn't seen to an audience that
included several nuns. One of the sisters was particularly fervid and, in
his words, "a little funny in the head." Unexpectedly there was what he
called a "hot scene." No Fijian seemed to mind. But after the show, the
nun approached him and said, "Father, you're going to burn in hell for
To which Crispin replied, "I may burn in hell, but it won't be for showing
John Pierson is an author and longtime indie film representative. His
first article about life as a theater operator in Fiji appeared in July.