Beirut's movie boycott hurts Lebanon more than Israel

Several big-name films have been banned in the past two years in Lebanon, and some say the censorship is outdated, haphazard and harmful to the country's own film industry.

al-monitor An advertising billboard for the movie "Wonder Woman" is seen along a highway east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 31, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

فبر 8, 2018

The Lebanese General Security Directorate recently reviewed director Steven Spielberg's film "The Post" because of his ties with Israel, and its censorship committee decided to ban the movie because Spielberg is on a blacklist for "Schindler’s List." A few days later, the decision was reversed and the movie was allowed in cinemas.

Movie censorship in Lebanon is haphazard, with decisions based loosely on a 1947 law and often made under pressure from religious and political groups. Censorship is based on four subjective considerations, which include respect for public morals, state authorities' reputations, sectarian and religious sensitivities and Lebanon's interests.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who is responsible for ratifying the committee’s decision, decided not to do so. In a Jan. 17 statement, the ministry said Machnouk saw no objection to tthe showing of the film, which “has no connection with Lebanon or to the conflict with the Israeli enemy.”

About the same time, the Interior Ministry decided to ban the movie “Jungle” two weeks after its release. "Jungle" is the story of three friends who get lost in the Bolivian Amazon in 1981, based on the real experience and book of Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg. Although the movie scarcely refers to Israel, it was taken out of theaters because of complaints and pressure from the Lebanese branch of the Campaign to Boycott the Supporters of Israel, which argued that the movie is based on a “Zionist’s” story and pointed out that producer Dana Lustig is also Israeli.

Machnouk was unavailable for comment when Al-Monitor contacted the Interior Ministry.

A long list of movies have been banned or censored in Lebanon during the past two years. "Spotlight," an Oscar-winning film about pedophilia in the Catholic church, was not shown because distributors were afraid of religion-related repercussions. "I Say Dust," a film from Lebanese-American Darine Hotait, was banned for a same-sex kissing scene, horror movie "Annabelle 2" for religious reasons and "Wonder Woman" and "Justice League" because actress Gal Gadot, a former Israeli soldier, starred in both.

March Lebanon, a nongovernmental organization concerned with freedom of expression and culture, has created a Virtual Museum of Censorship, an online database tracking banned and censored material since Lebanon declared independence from France in 1943. March Vice President Gino Raidy told Al-Monitor he was “very excited about the ban lift on 'The Post.'"

“For once, the interior minister showed it was not just a decision to sign without looking at it,” Raidy said, adding, “especially since for the past two years, we had an unprecedented level of censorship. ... Moreover, Steven Spielberg was authorized [in Lebanon] before — except for 'Schindler’s List.' His name was just blackened from the posters sometimes. I think the public outrage online really helped here.”

The activist says cultural censorship works against Lebanon's own movie industry. “For each movie banned, there will be thousands of illegal DVD copies and streaming to replace the cinema,” Raidy said. “Also, distributors could be afraid to schedule Lebanese productions based on [the Lebanese Civil War], for example, or on religion. The creativity of filmmakers is affected and that [does] real damage to our country, not to Hollywood. We should allow filmmakers to make movies about what people want to hear about, and not make every scene hard to shoot for them. If they don’t have an audience here, then it's a lost opportunity because it's [inside the country] that they'll find the most receptive audience.”

That opinion is shared by Zeina Sfeir, press officer and a board member of Metropolis Art Cinema Association. She told Al-Monitor that creators are the first and most important part of the process. "Lebanese creators risk censorship before their project even starts by the General Security, but also by religious and political groups.”

For five years, a group of lawyers, cinema associations and producers have been working to change the 1947 law.

“We want censorship to be independent of the Ministry of Culture, so the film festivals don’t undergo censorship and so [the process] becomes reduced to age ratings for movies about to be in cinemas,” Sfeir added. “We are waiting for the next elections in May to have independent representatives in the parliament, people who would defend this idea.”

Ayman Mhanna, the Samir Kassir Foundation's executive director of freedom of expression, would like to see a new approach to determining films' suitability for audiences.

“What we need are psychologists and experts to judge if a movie is inappropriate for some age groups, not security people to restrict artistic freedom,” he told Al-Monitor. “For the people, it is also about their own freedom to have access and choose what to see or read or hear.”

Mhanna doesn’t see a link between 'The Post' and the cultural boycott of Israel, but understands some people might be offended for their own reasons. In that case, “Then these people don’t go watch it and that’s it; others can. Boycotting is a personal affair.”

In the case of Gadot, Mhanna noted that other movies in which the Israeli actress appeared have been available in Lebanon, as well as magazines mentioning her. “It shows that technically, it is hard to [enforce] total censorship in a country, and also that these decisions are erratic in the absence of a clear and more open law,” he said. “Eventually, it's about the value of liberty in this country. And which values do we want to have?”

The next parliament will have to address the tricky question of cultural freedom in Lebanon, as censorship is becoming a more frequent topic of discussion among the public and as people expect more clarity and openness.

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