Censorship Spider Webs: The Curious Case of Lebanese Cinema
Conflating reality with fiction in the case of cinema acts to the detriment of the sector on all levels.
In her essay Untold Stories, Irit Neidhardt examines the status quo of Middle Eastern cinema, and the readiness of the European states to fund and co-produce projects that would otherwise not see the light in their home countries due to the absence of the proper local resources to encourage such cultural output.
Perhaps Neidhardt, among other things, rightly questions the motivation behind such co-productions, and argues that they evoke a sense of neo-colonialism. I think there’s a deeper, more serious problem to worry about, which warrants in-depth examination and discussion: censorship.
In my home country, Lebanon, not only are funds scarce, but cinema is constantly subjected to a strict censorship scheme that ranges from the mere deletion of a few scenes, to the banning of an entire movie. Such decisions are taken by the Lebanese General Security, a branch of the army.
Not only is this appalling censorship exerted on foreign movies, but it is also employed on national productions, where it is taken one step further. In the case of local works, General Security scrutinizes the movies throughout the whole creative process, starting with an initial examination of the script and ending with the post-production period when the movie is ready to be released.
Accordingly, any diversion from the initial script, say by adding a few lines that would have been initially red-flagged, would be penalized.
Therefore, Neidhardt’s purported argument for neo-colonialism, while justified, could be rebutted by pointing out the reason why directors seek external cooperation in the first place (but this is a topic for a different article).
In this article I am interested in dissecting the censorship apparatus in Lebanon, in order to understand its effect on the cinematic production in the country. The point that I will make in the proposed argument is that the reasons that are cited as the primary motives behind censoring a film, eventually backfire and cause adverse effects.
Before getting to the juicy part let me briefly go over the Lebanese cinema censorship bill, which was passed on November 27, 1947. This was no mistake, yes, 1947.
Article 4 of the law states the following (author’s translation):
The censors should adhere to the following principles:
- Respecting the public order, morals and virtues.
- Respecting the emotions and feelings of the public, avoiding the awakening of racial and religious differences.
- Preserving the status and reputation of public authorities.
- Combating any proposition acting against the benefit of the Lebanese public welfare.
This obviously outdated law has lent itself to a variety of nuanced interpretations, due to the lack of clarity of concepts such as public order, morals, or virtues.
An article that appeared in Deutsche Welle summarized the pillars of Lebanese censorship as the “trinity of religion, politics, and sex.” Any reference that could be potentially interpreted as offensive to a certain religion, or any direct mention of a certain local political party would be automatically discarded.
For example, Ziard Doueiri’s West Beyrouth had to be examined by Muslim and Christian religious figures before it was approved for screening, as Lina Khatib mentions in her book Lebanese Cinema:
“When West Beyrouth was made, the General Security told Ziad Doueiri that his film would have to be approved by a Muslim sheikh and a Christian priest before it could be distributed in the country. Following their approval, the film was released uncut.”
There are other endless similar anecdotes of movie parts that were censored because they were either deemed offensive to religion (mainly Islam and Christianity) as in the case of The Da Vinci Code, or because they contained sexually explicit material, or because they singled-out a certain political party.
The reason behind such strict measures is due to the complex nature of the social and political Lebanese fabric, in addition to the confusion surrounding Lebanese identity as Lina Khatib points out.
Such a fragile composition is mainly dominated by sectarian politics which were enforced following the Lebanese independence from France in 1943. By recognizing the multi-religious identity of Lebanon, politics and religion intermixed to produce a sectarian political system that cost the country a fifteen-year civil war between 1975 and 1990.
The solution to maintain such a fragile system was thought to be achieved through silencing. As Neidhardt adequately states: “In a country like Lebanon, with no official historiography and a ruling class that insists on forgetting and carrying on regardless, the different sounds [in movies] of a missing future can’t be anything but threat.”
But how could this possibly affect cinematic production? And how would the directors and scriptwriters adapt in such circumstances?
One way through which directors circumvent the authority’s scrutiny is by incorporating encoded messages, to be interpreted metaphorically and allegorically. In which case the movies would only make sense to those already familiar with the history underlying the movie. As Neidhardt argues, such an ambiguous approach imposed by the dynamics of censorship eventually lead to a collective amnesia among the people.
Given such imprisoning context, many directors would rather evade tangibly tackling important issues from a historical perspective. By that I have in mind biographical and historical-fiction movies like All the President’s Men (1976), J. Edgar (2011), 23-F (2011), Missing (1982), No(2012), The Killing Fields (1984), The Lives of Others (2006), etc. These films, and many more, created a fictional setting against the backdrop of real historical events of the recent past, including the massacres of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Pentagon Papers, and the life of the first director of the FBI.
While these movies are somehow based on a true story, it is generally understood that they do not claim to be factually documenting the events. This is usually what documentaries are for. However, within the Lebanese context, this distinction is rarely made. In fact, ironically enough, documentaries are more tolerated than fiction movies.
In struggling to adapt to this gloomy situation, Lebanese directors and scriptwriters are forced to avoid sensitive topics that might be considered threatening to social peace. Instead they tend to create parallel worlds that look exactly like this one, but without mentioning sects, names, or anything that might be perceived as insulting.
This is carried out through the creation of allegorical narratives that hint towards the signified subject but without properly mentioning it. This could be gauged in movies like Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now (2011), where she limits the reference to Muslims and Christians living in a very distant village to the symbolic figures, and limits the dialogues to what is socially acceptable. In fact, the movie was also censored by the General Security, and Labaki was “advised” to change the dialogues to fit the concerned parties’ expectations in order not to offend them.
Obviously, such demarcation of the limits that the directors cannot trespass, confines the dialogue to a superficial level, constraining any possibility of character and story development. In fact, this was one of the criticisms directed at Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now.
The exercise of such authoritarian control for too long has not only affected the cinema industry, rendering it none-existent, but it has also affected the Lebanese public, whose readiness to scrutinize any new movie production is unparalleled.
One such example could be found in Neidhardt’s personal experience at the Freiburger Film Forum.
“The organizers of Freiburger Film Forum, a biannual ethnographic film festival in the south of Germany, had asked me to moderate the Q&As for their Middle Eastern films in the 2009 festival. After the screening of Je Veux Voir/Badi Shuf, by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (LB/F 2008), about the aftermath of the July 2006 war, a gentleman in the audience commented on the film’s selection for the festival. He introduced himself as Lebanese, who had lived in Germany for many years and owned a travel agency running tours to Lebanon. He complained that in Germany we only see images from Lebanon that deal with war and never show the beautiful side of the country. He was upset.”
The reaction of this gentleman is not a rare one. In fact, it is the common reaction of the Lebanese people toward movies that are either critical of Lebanon, or representing the country in a miserable condition. This is why the movie Beirut (2018) attracted a wave of outrage among the Lebanese public. Its detractors argued that the director Brad Anderson was misrepresenting Lebanon by not providing the real picture of Beirut, despite the fact that the movie is set in 1982 Beirut, during the Lebanese civil war.
These common-case reactions, instigated by an abundant censorship atmosphere, indicate that at the bottom of it, when it comes to their “national pride,” the Lebanese public, in their collective unconscious, conflate reality with fiction. People cannot seem to distinguish between a documentary and a historical-fiction movie that is situated in a particular historical period.
Conflating reality with fiction in the case of cinema acts to the detriment of the sector on all levels. Such conflation has, as we’ve seen from the above mentioned examples, many disadvantages. It conditions the directors’ works in order to cajole the censors and appeal to the public’s approval. This results in a stagnating industry, as well as a lack of proper engagement with history, and a collective amnesia that fails to face or even accept neither its past nor its current state of affairs.
Accordingly, under the pretense of protecting social peace, censorship on the cinematic industry in Lebanon has only succeeded in fomenting a culture of terror (dare you make a movie about a Lebanese politician!) and casted a multilayered censorship spider web that has actively and retroactively halted the possibility of any critical artistic production.
Although the future hardly seems promising, maybe rising artists will follow the steps of the Lebanese directors Nadine Labaki and Ziad Doueiri to break through the shackles (organizations like March Lebanon are trying to defend freedom of speech) of a faulty system that has only succeeded in blurring the line between fiction and reality, and weakened the critical view of many a Lebanese citizen. However, it seems that the Lebanese public wants to prove me wrong, as the criticism (also because a certain group conflated, yet again, reality with fiction) keep on falling on the recent Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018), which was recently voted Jury Prize winner at Cannes festival. We are all stuck in a very complex and multi-layered censorship spider-web!