Shearing Lebanon’s freedom
Sarah El-Richani: Lebanese censors target art
30 Oct 09

This is a guest post by Sarah El-Richani

Although Beirut is generally regarded as an oasis of freedom in a largely repressed region, the continuing censorship of the arts there is threatening to tarnish this image. While the press and TV, particularly after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, report freely, an antiquated prior-censorship tradition has left the arts to the mercy of the gendarmes.

Recently the censor’s blade struck again, this time shredding Lebanese director Simon El Habre’s debut film “One Man Village” for allegedly threatening civil accord. The film, winner of the Canadian Hot Docs Best feature length documentary amongst many other honours around the world, follows the life of Semaan, one of the few Christian villagers who returned to live in the abandoned village of Ain al-Halazoun. In spite of the post-war reconciliation between the Druze and Christian inhabitants of “the Mountain”, few villagers other than Semaan chose to return to their long-abandoned villages. The film observes Semaan’s life in the village and his fellow villagers’ visits to their hometown, raising, important but generally neglected, questions of memory, amnesia, healing and reconciliation.

The censorship board responded by ordering five minutes cut from the film so as to avoid stirring “sectarian tensions”. In addition to blatantly limiting free expression, these concerns do seem preposterous in light of the unregulated more intrusive and influential electronic media, which has been at times accused of inciting hatred.

Unfortunately, this latest strike by the censors is not the first this year. Almost within the same week, the General Security’s censorship bureau disallowed the screening of two Paolo Benvenuti’s films in the Beirut International Film Festival as the “Catholic Centre of Information” deemed them insulting to the church. Paradoxically, Benvenuti was the retrospective feature of an otherwise stellar event.

While religious institutions technically don’t have the final say, the censorship board, when in doubt refer to these authorities who at times emerge as a more brutal censor. The censors, it also appears, are too willing to accept these divine verdicts as was the case with Marc Abi Rachid’s film Help, which saw its license-to-screen plucked away in the spring of this year.
In a panel discussion organised by the Goethe Institute and UMAM Documentation and Research Centre in 2007 entitled “How Free is Art?”, Major Elie Asmar, Deputy Director of the General Directorate of Lebanon’s Sureté Génerale and the chief of its censorship bureau revealed that he, alongside the other “university-educated” censors often felt coincé; not knowing whether to censor-or not — whether to risk the wrath of artists and civil society or that of religious and political leaders.

As they often do, the censors chose to appease the latter group, leaving the civil society composed of artists, journalists and activists spearheaded by unyielding Lebanese culture journalist Pierre Abi-Saab facing yet another fight.

While their campaigning is at times for naught, as was the case with Abi-Rached’s film Help, they have in the past successfully propelled the overturning of some decisions. In 2007, the pretext of ‘inciting sectarian hatred’ was again used by the Lebanese General Security censorship bureau, to ban a play by Rabih Mroué, “How Nancy Wished that Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke”. The censor’s unofficial justification for the ban was that, given the context of sectarian tension in the country, this was the wrong time to stage a play that centres on the testimonies of fighters from the Civil War. Luckily, the objections, spearheaded by artists and activists in addition to those voiced by the then-Minister of Culture Tarek Mitri, bore fruit and the ban was revoked.

Another riveting play Hakeh neswan, an avant-garde Lebanese adaptation of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, written and directed by Lina Khoury, also had several encounters with the censors, particularly when they discovered the shocking fact that a non-approved version was in fact being staged. In a previous interview with young playwright, Khoury revealed that the censor was kind enough to clarify what he deemed was unacceptable to reach the Lebanese audience by “editing” the piece in her presence. “With every mark of his pen, I felt a knife piercing my body”, she said. Again the Ministry of Culture intervened to safeguard an already watered-down version and guarantee a small victory to the free expression camp.

Sadly, several other instances of shame can be found ranging from the removal of “intimate” scenes from Brokeback Mountain, the banning of Persepolis, which was given much attention undoubtedly due to political reasons, the banning of books like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code to the more serious campaign in 1999 mounted by Sunni cleric and aiming at muting renown singer and oud player Marcel Khalifeh for singing a verse from the Quran in Mahmoud Darwich’s poem “Oh Father, I am Yusuf”. Luckily, Khalifeh was acquitted and received immense support.

While campaigns, articles and the occasional presence of a few enlightened ministers willing to intervene is a step in the battle against art censorship, there is a dire need for a full nettoyage, cleansing the Lebanese legal system of such unconstitutional legal provisions from the Penal code and the Press and Publications law, which impose prior-censorship and promote self-censorship. Banning films or cutting chunks of them, even if “only” five minutes out of 86, is at odds with Lebanon’s tradition and legacy of welcoming intellectual refugees and producing admirable cultural products.