Lebanon gripped by film-banning frenzy

The ambiguity and arbitrary implementation of the Israel boycott causes confusion in the industry.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Actor Tom Hanks (L), actress and singer Rita Wilson (2nd L), Executive Editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron (C), actress Kate Capshaw (2nd R) and director Steven Spielberg (R) attend the premiere of “The Post” in Washington, last December.           (AP)
Wider clampdown. Actor Tom Hanks (L), actress Rita Wilson (2nd L), Executive Editor of the Washington Post Martin Baron (C), actress Kate Capshaw (2nd R) and director Steven Spielberg (R) attend the premiere of “The Post” last December.

BEIRUT - Lebanon, long viewed as the freest country in the Arab world, is witnessing a string of bans on Hollywood movies that sparked condemnation about the deterioration of public freedom.

Two films — “The Post” and “Jungle” — were banned in theatres across Lebanon last month in compliance with a boycott of Israel. The ban on “The Post,” whose director Steven Spielberg is blacklisted for donating money to Israel, was retracted. The ban on “Jungle,” which recounts the survival drama of Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg, came two weeks after the film had been showing in cinemas.

Reactions to the bans were divided. Many support the boycott of Israel, a country with which Lebanon is technically at war and which is widely reviled for military aggression. Others say the censorship is arbitrary and randomly enforced.

Activist Samah Idriss, co-founder of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel, said banning films was justified and in line with the boycott of Israel law, which Lebanon passed in 1955.

“The problem is that the law may be outdated and, in many instances, it had been overlooked. This time the government has assumed its responsibility and it should be applauded and praised for it (not criticised),” Idriss said.

“It is the (Lebanese) censorship board’s responsibility to make sure that no works involving links with Israel and Israelis are cleared or can pass through.”

“In the case of ‘The Post,’” Idriss argued, “the director is pro-Israeli, a lead actor is pro-Israeli and the executive producer is pro-Israeli. Moreover, any of those three support Israel directly. For instance, Spielberg donated $1 million to Israel in 2006 after it attacked Lebanon.”

Spielberg’s previous two films, “The BFG” and “Bridge of Spies,” were allowed in Lebanese cinemas. The ambiguity and arbitrary implementation of the anti-Israel boycott legislation causes confusion and dismay in the industry.

“Censorship is something that we face at every edition of the Lebanese Film Festival,” said actress and the festival’s director Wafa Halawi. “The criteria for censorship and the political agenda behind it have not been clear in many aspects, even artistically. In other words, we cannot predict what things will be censored or not. This puts artists and anyone in the film industry in an ambiguous position.”

Several branches of government are involved in deciding on which films are banned in Lebanon. The country’s censorship board, which includes representatives from the foreign, information, education, economy and social affairs ministries, submits its recommendation to the Interior Ministry, which is represented on the board by a member of the General Security.

Halawi said arbitrary censorship is increasing and becoming stricter, especially regarding political and religious content.

“Mainly anything that could trigger any controversy or misunderstanding about religion or politics is being avoided,” she said. “Obviously, it becomes more complicated in a country like Lebanon where anything that could be misinterpreted can develop into something much bigger.

“However, the most dangerous aspect of censorship is when artists start unconsciously to self-censor themselves. They don’t know what is allowed or not, how to talk about a theme and whether it will be controversial or not.”

Film critics blasted the bans on grounds that they harm Lebanon’s reputation as a bastion of freedom. For them, the boycott of cultural products should be a personal choice, not a state-enforced measure.

Idriss, however, insisted that the state has a role to fulfil in guiding its citizens and preventing “cultural normalisation” with Israel.

“Do you think the Americans would allow the screening of a movie funded by Iran or one that praises [Osama] bin Laden for example?” he asked. “There are tens of books and films banned in countries of the so-called free world because they touch on national security and the safety of citizens.”

“The freedom of speech is different from the freedom of normalising relations with the enemy. We have to make a distinction between censorship and the preservation of national sovereignty, dignity and resistance against Israel,” he added.

Another controversy is simmering over the American film “Beirut,” about a CIA operative kidnapped in the Lebanese capital at the height of the civil war in 1982. There are calls to ban the fictional movie, which was criticised for tarnishing Lebanon’s image and rewriting its history without Lebanese insight. The film is to open in US theatres April 13, the anniversary of the outbreak of Lebanon’s war.

The renewed focus on the boycott laws coincides with a wider clampdown on free speech. In early January, an arrest warrant was issued for television presenter Maria Maalouf after she criticised Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Television talk-show host Marcel Ghanem is being prosecuted for criticising the judiciary.