Three films have been banned in Kenya in the past year, raising questions about the freedom of expression in the country. When The Wolf of Wall Street was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) in February last year, I didn’t give it much thought. The movie had already been available in Nairobi’s numerous shops which sell pirated DVDs and was easily accessible on various illegal download sites. I brushed off the event as an aberration by an otherwise quiet film board. I, however, received the news that the film Stories of Our Lives had been banned with shock and dismay. The film, which chronicles the lives of queer Kenyans and which was based on true stories, had been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim. The film board cited ‘promotion of homosexuality’ as one of the reasons why the film had been banned. A few days later, the film’s producer was arrested and charged with producing the film without a permit from the board. And then, a few weeks ago, the KFCB banned the film adaption of E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey about a bondage and sadomasochistic relationship between a wealthy businessman and a young female student.
I want to make a point about upholding the freedom of expression that links the thematic reference points of these films. As a queer feminist and socialist, I find The Wolf of Wall Street and Fifty Shades of Grey quite problematic: the former glorifies the ravages of an investor elite on an unsuspecting population while the latter glorifies psychological (if not physical) assault on women. The films are, if anything, a poignant reminder of the pervasive role of power differentials in society, something that the films try and fail to mask. An assessment of Stories of Our Lives is difficult to make, only the trailer is available online and the ban in Kenya means that screenings are mostly relegated to film festivals in Western countries. A friend lamented at the celebration of Kenyan cultural products abroad and their disavowal locally. A few months later, I watched a documentary about LGBTIQ rights in Cameroon. The documentary was screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and had been approved for an adult only audience by the KFCB. The time limit to appeal the ban on Stories of Our Lives has long passed and the film faces the real prospect that it might never be viewed legally in Kenya.
Films are made to be watched, to be commented on. If cultural products are really mirrors upon which society takes a look at itself, then banning them is effectively shattering that mirror. Banning films makes them ‘unwatchable’: opportunities for criticism are closed off. When I watched The Wolf of Wall Street months ago, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of transgression against what the government considered unacceptable viewing. I spoke to a friend of mine a few weeks later about the film and she pointed out something that had been completely lost on me until then, that many women experienced watching the film differently. While most male viewers celebrated the ‘aggressive’ and ‘go-getter’ nature of the main character; many women saw the objectification of, and violence against, women. For a film that glorifies the exploits of a class of individuals responsible for the 2008 global financial meltdown, The Wolf of Wall Street managed to do pretty well for itself.
The sense of transgression and rebelliousness in watching a banned film, especially a big-budget commercial film, may work to obscure critical elements of watching and genuflecting on it. The Interview, a comedy about an attempted CIA plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim-Jong Un, credits its blockbuster success on a cyber-attack on Sony Pictures and subsequent threats of more attacks should the movie be released to theatres. The film itself isn’t that good: it is best when assessed as a farcical caricature of the relationship between the US government and mainstream media in propagating US imperialism. The film ironically both portrays and lives up to this scenario. And more worrying are claims by some American movie-goers that watching The Interview, for them, arose from a sense of patriotic duty to uphold the freedom of speech and expression.
A trend is emerging to the effect that supporting the freedom of speech and expression must involve upholding ‘the right to offend’ as well as support the content of speech itself. This is more so after the attacks on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Though hailed as an ‘equal opportunity offender’, the paper’s over-emphasis on bashing religious figures and almost extreme fascination with attacking the Islamic faith had for a long time been accused of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. If the intention of the Kouachy brothers was to muzzle the paper for good, they failed. The Charlie Hebdo issue immediately after the attack sold three million copies from a circulation of just sixty thousand. Obscured from discussions about the Charlie Hebdo attacks are viewpoints by Muslims, Jews, black people, immigrants, women – the ‘others’ of a Eurocentric rag which couched its prurience on a supposed ‘absolute’ right to freedom of speech and expression.
The freedoms of speech and expression are not absolute. This is a good thing considering the role speech has in advocating for violent acts. That is why many countries criminalise hate speech, incitement to violence, incitement to genocide and genocide denial. But the fact that freedom of speech or expression is not absolute does not necessarily mean that what one says is effectively curtailed. In Kenya, where hate-speech and incitement are banned, one can still engage in pretty offensive comments, even targeted at particular groups, without committing a crime. Perhaps instead of talking about these freedoms from the flawed conception that they are absolute, it may be time to critically assess what about our speech encourages democracy, transparency, enquiry and a critical outlook – the famed benefits of liberal free speech.
Though The Wolf of Wall Street and Fifty Shades of Grey are problematic, banning them closes off many opportunities for the public to criticise the film and, as hoped, to make their own viewpoints about them. It is interesting that the ban on these three films comes at a time at which bloggers are going to jail for crimes such as ‘insulting’ or ‘undermining’ a public officer. Interesting too is the fact that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission has been unsuccessful in pursuing politicians who engage in hate speech. As a law student, it never occurred to me that criticising a governor (as Nancy Mbindallah did) could ever amount to undermining the Governor for Meru County. With the increased bans and arrests for what many Kenyans consider to be necessary, banal or offensive speech and expression; the government seems to be setting the stage for a worrying trend.
Though problematic in many ways The Wolf of Wall Street and Fifty Shades of Grey were probably never bound for commercial success in Kenya and, in the fast paced entertainment landscape, these films would have been quickly replaced. Most of us who were likely to watch these films would have been poised to make an assessment without the pall of government censorship hanging over us. In a fast-paced entertainment landscape, these films would have (and they already have) been quickly replaced by others. At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a critical assessment of these films for and by Kenyans and there’s little opportunity to learn from them.
I cannot finish this article without addressing the moralism of the Film Board. Bishop Jackson Kosgei, the head of the KFCB, reminds me of Reverend Lokodo, the Ugandan Minister for Ethics who has made it his life’s work to eradicate the ‘problem’ of homosexuality and pornography in Uganda. The reliance on religious clerics to head posts to do with ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’, and the regulation of cultural content reveals the state’s interest in policing what it considers legitimate, acceptable and even natural. Banning films on grounds of ‘immorality’ or even ‘prolonged sex scenes’ reveals a worrying governmental interest in creating and enforcing a single version of morality, applicable to all people at all times. The fact is, many Kenyans are able to watch a film as violent and sexist as Fifty Shades of Grey and come out with a critical response that makes a distinction between sadomasochism and abusiveness. Perhaps The Wolf of Wall Street’s narrative about rapacious greed among investors hits too close to home in reference to the Kenyan elite. Indeed, aren’t we the country where a politician once drove with the trunk of Mercedes open with wads of cash pouring out?
The ban-everything mentality by the Film Classification Board, a favoured instrument of control by governments, elides the systemic and societal factors at play in the making and propagation of cultural products in the first place. Isn’t it better to have society grapple with the problematic aspects of a film than ban it outright? We might never know in the case of the three films discussed in this case but we can try and make sure this doesn’t happen again.