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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 theater.

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. Times.

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 that!"

To which Crispin replied, "I may burn in hell, but it won't be for showing movies."

Sota tale.

John Pierson is an author and longtime indie film representative. His first article about life as a theater operator in Fiji appeared in July.

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