I'm an American who moved to New Zealand six months ago who often gets asked how different it is living here than it is in the States.

I don't want to sound like I'm about to climb up on my soapbox and be that guy who won't shut up about how "great" America is, but avoiding coming off that way is very difficult in this instance.

Toby Manhire: Book ban proves it - we're not safe
'Will I be burnt next?' - Into the River author on book banning

When it comes to the differences, 96 per cent of the time it's exactly the same. One of the remaining per cent is driving on the left side of the road, one is that we still can't get our act together about LGBT rights, one is that cannabis is legal in the state I'm from, and the other one per cent is the shocking lengths and means of censorship here.


My chosen profession for the last seven years has been working in the film exhibition industry. That's something I've continued to do here working at two cinemas in the greater Auckland area.

Every piece of cinema, from slog low-budget horror to the most artful of the art house, must be submitted to the Film and Video Labelling Body of New Zealand - an office of the NZ government - and is forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of being available for public consumption in this country. That is absurd and seems like extortion.

Outside of a narrow set of exceptions for some types of documentaries (which are recommended to be submitted despite their exceptions), submitting a film to the FVLB that receives a restricted rating costs $1,124.40 plus fees. Then, the FVLB hands the film to Labelling Body Community Representatives who view the film and charge another $480 plus fees for the favor. And those figures are just if a film were to be released theatrically. If the film was also going to have a DVD/Bluray release, you need to pay for another rating. If you want to release it digitally, you have to pay for another rating. You want to bundle it with another film that has already been rated? Sorry, you'll have to get the two films rated as a bundle.

It was shocking to learn that the NZIFF is the only film festival in the world that has to pay to have their films rated. And who are the people doing this censoring? The FVLB website has censored that too!

In the US there is a private organisation funded by film studios called the Motion Pictures Association of America. They're well known to be in Hollywood's back pocket. Generally, films get submitted and pay fees to the MPAA to have their films rated. However, this *system* is entirely voluntary and over the last decade or so, more and more films have been skipping the unnecessary step of getting rated at all.

About 35 people sat reading books silently in the University of Otago link building this afternoon, protesting the interim banning of Ted Dawe's book 'Into the River'. Source: ODT/YouTube

The ratings in the US are also voluntary for exhibitors to enforce. Theatres generally enforce the ratings. However, there is an important distinction between a private business having a policy against offering its services to someone who is not yet legally an adult and hasn't been granted the full autonomy of the US Constitution by Providence of arbitrarily waking up 18 years after having been born, and the government telling restricting you from patronizing the business.

Even for the most restrictive rating in the US, NC-17, meaning no admittance, even without a parent or guardian to anyone under 17, is totally voluntary. I'm happy to say the theatre I spent my last four years with in the US is one of the rare cinemas who opts to let people make their own decisions about what they want to see and chooses to not enforce the MPAA guidelines. That simply isn't an option here in New Zealand.

Before moving here, I assumed most or all countries in the western world had their own equivalent to the First Amendment in the US which guarantees Americans the right to free speech and expression. This is why the censorship here is so shocking to me.


I've been taking something as seeming innocuous as buying any book I wanted or watching any film I wanted for granted. Free speech, free expression, and free thought really, actually do matter if you want to call yourselves a free society.

I'm sorry if there are a bunch of stars and stripes coming out of my butt here, but it's one of the things I can honestly and unironically be proud to say is the American way. I'd be more proud of my new country if it were the New Zealand way too.

Michael Putlack is a film exhibitor. He has lived in NZ for six months.