Inside Samoa’s Rocketman ban

In a move half shocking and half not at all surprising to Samoa’s LGBT community, Apia’s Apollo Cinemas will not be screening the Elton John musical Rocketman. Sapeer Mayron reports from Apia on the decision and its impact on the Samoa’s LGBT community.

Despite locking it in for screenings, the Apollo cinema has had to send Rocketman back to its distributers unaired, after the principal censor deemed it inappropriate for public viewing, even to a restricted audience, and banned it. And while the decision caused outrage on social media, many Samoans will be having déjà vu.

In 2009, the Samoa Censorship Board banned Milk, a film about gay rights. At the time, censor Leiataua Niuapu Faaui declined to comment fully, saying just: “there are rules and guidelines for these things.” Not long after, he allowed the film Lesbian Vampire Killers to screen, stating: “It’s about a legend and all the vampires are female. That’s why it says lesbians [in the title].”

Forbes reports that in Russia, Rocketman was released in a modified format which excluded the drug taking and gay sex scenes, to “comply with Russian law,” according to the film’s Russian distributer. The ministry of culture denies ordering the censorship. Rocketman director Dextor Fletcher (who also made Bohemian Rhapsody) posted on Twitter that the film is a “no-holds barred musical fantasy,” and Elton John himself is rejecting the censorship in the “strongest possible terms”

On Twitter, the singer said the move is a “sad reflection of the divided world we still live in and how it can still be so cruelly unaccepting of the love between two people.” And the film’s star, Taron Egerton, posted on Instagram that he is “crestfallen” at the censorship.

Samoa’s censorship board classification guide spells out the censor’s criteria. Films up for banning will show explicit sexual activity, demeaning sexual acts, promotion of sex with underage people, and promotion of sexual crimes. Explicit sexual violence and promotion of sexual violence are also unacceptable. There are also restrictions on the promotion of or instruction in drug use or manufacture, and on material that is offensive to religions.

For Leiataua, the “frequent” scenes of gay sex in Rocketman made the decision straightforward. Leiataua said depiction of homosexual sexual activity on screen “violates laws against same sex marriage and it doesn’t go well with cultural and Christian belief here. It’s a good story, in that it’s about an individual trying to move on in life,” Leiataua said. “He went through a difficult family life and managed to move on and become very successful. But there are acts that are not good for public viewing, and against the law.”

The principal censor said films are given R (restricted) ratings when the content is violent or sexual but can be viewed by responsible adults. “There are people that are of age and they are able to know and decide for themselves and what is good and what is wrong,” Leiataua said. He also said Rocketman and Milk are “more or less the same” in terms of the justification for banning.

“[Harvey Milk] was a successful individual and he made his way from the bottom to the top,” the censor acknowledged. “But it’s not good for our Samoan culture. We have laws and we value our culture and our Christian beliefs.”

The Samoa censorship board and ministry of justice stressed they “have nothing against” homosexuals or fa’afafine, Leiataua said. “We are just doing our job, and censoring film according to the criteria and classifications of our office. We have no hard feelings towards anyone, or saying we have anything against human rights.”

Apollo Cinema projectionist Simon Kenchington watched the film for the first time alongside the censors last week. He said when they ordered Rocketman he assumed the censors would give it a particularly high film classification.

But when he finally saw the film, he realised rejection was likely. “I was expecting to cut out scenes, but when I saw the movie I began thinking there is a chance we might have to cancel this,” Mr Kenchington said.

In his experience, films depicting homosexual activity typically receive very high ratings from the censorship board, like R18 or R21. The cinema is also directed to cut out or black out scenes which show homosexual sex.

In the case of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Mr Kenchington said such scenes were few enough to avoid rejection, though some scenes were blacked out, and it received an R rating. But in Rocketman, the overall theme of the film was too much for the censor to ignore.

“It was seen to be promoting homosexual marriage,” Mr Kenchington said. “The scene [the censor] mentioned is at the end, showing Elton John now. Here he is, happily married to a man and the censor mentioned that is a scene that was something we shouldn’t be showing people.”

Samoa’s Crimes Act 2013 criminalises sex between men with a penalty of up to five years in prison, or seven years if “the act of sodomy is committed on a male, and at the time of the act that male is under the age of 16 years and the offender is of or over the age of 21 years.”

Attempts to commit sodomy are also liable for a five-year term in prison. Same sex marriage is illegal, but foreign same sex marriages are recognised. Violent films such as recent release John Wick 3 do not meet the standard for rejection. The latest in the John Wick series is playing most nights at Apollo and is rated R18. The threshold is explicit sexual violence and/or promotion of sexual violence.

“It does seem like a double standard,” Mr Kenchington said. “Maybe religious beliefs are prioritised higher than violence, I guess. I am not sure if that’s the right thing to do or not, but it seems to be a higher priority.”

President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association, lawyer Alex Su’a, said his organisation doesn’t feel strongly about the banning of Rocketman, the story of Elton John. As the voice for Samoa’s fa’afafine and LGBTI community, Mr Su’a said the truth is that people in their organisation have been through worse discrimination than the banning of a film.

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“A lot of people call me on behalf of SFA and the LGBTI community expecting that we should be the ones to come up with the uproar, but I think we have been subjected to a lot of labelling, victimising, discrimination, and we’re a lot more resilient now,” Mr Su’a said. “Ban the movie? We’re like, OK, ban the movie, we’ll go and download it free off the internet. That’s how resilient we are.”

Mr Su’a said while the censor may have grounds to say Rocketman is “contrary to public order, or undesirable in the public interest”, he wants to see consistency. “If he is saying that there are homosexual scenes there, which is against Christian principles, well if we talk about Christian principles and values, sex outside of marriage is unchristian, right?

“Polygamy is not allowed in the bible, so is eating seafood, why can’t you ban that if you want to stick to your grounds of Christian principles and values.” The community is using the Rocketman “kerfuffle,” as Mr Su’a puts it, as a chance to reflect on their advocacy work, but the ban is a small step back for the fa’afafine and LGBTI community.

“It’s disappointing for us in the sense that it’s a feedback for us that we need to do a lot more,” Mr Su’a said.


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