Nadine Elali

10 Questions for Lucien Bourjeily

NOW talks to Lucien Bourjeily, a Lebanese filmmaker, stage director, and a 2014 nominee for the annual Freedom of Expression Award

Lucien Bourjeily, an advocate for freedom of expression.

Lebanese filmmaker and stage director Lucien Bourjeily has been nominated by the Index on Censorship for the 2014 Freedom of Expression Awards held on the 20th of March in London. Bourjeily is known for his activism against censorship.


The Index on Censorship is an international organization that promotes and defends the right to free expression around the world. Each year it nominates journalists, writers, social media users, and artists in order to raise awareness of the issue.  


In a conversation with NOW, Bourjeily talks about the dangers of censorship and why he hopes his nomination will help stop the arbitrary censorship on arts and media in Lebanon.


NOW: How do you feel about the nomination?


Lucien Bourjeily: The Index [On Censorship] contacted me and informed me about the event on the 20th of March. I’m very excited about it because I will have the opportunity to meet other nominees and people who have been working on or acting against censorship in their own country. We will also be able to exchange experiences.


NOW: How significant is this nomination for you?


Bourjeily: It is not only significant for me, but for the overall environment of censorship in Lebanon. I’m just an artist who wants to express himself by doing art and sharing it with the general public. Unfortunately, [at the moment] we have to share [anything] with the censorship bureau before it’s released to Lebanese audiences.


Many in Lebanon believe that there is no censorship, [but that is just] because they are not exposed to it. They believe we live in a free and democratic country. But, actually, we don’t. People don’t deal with it on a day-to-day basis, but we artists have to. It has become our daily struggle.


So, what is important about this nomination is that it brings attention to our censorship situation both locally and abroad, and it thereby sheds light on the problem of having a censorship bureau that censors works of art before they are shown.


NOW: What about censorship in particular would you like to bring attention to?


Bourjeily: In Lebanon, the law on censorship dates back to the 1940s. It is almost an obsolete law and we’re still applying it with all its discrimination and flaws. The content of work is not being changed, but works are being banned altogether. Only dictatorships work in such ways. So, the question we should be asking ourselves is: Are we are living in a dictatorship or not? If we are not in a dictatorship, then every citizen should have the right to express his or her opinion. Authorities should not have the right to tell us which movies to make or which movies to show. They are using the law against us when the law should be there to protect us.


NOW: Why do you believe censorship exists in Lebanon?


Bourjeily: That is the question we artists keep asking ourselves. What are they afraid of? Would freedom of expression create a revolution against the state if we talk about things? Of course it won’t. It is about saying things and making things that matter. It is about providing a space for healthy social criticisms that would ultimately benefit the whole society. If we do not discuss social matters and create a healthy debate, then the situation would never become better.


There are some issues that authorities prefer us not to talk about.  What they do not see is that with freedom of expression our society will be less prone to violence. When one expresses themselves verbally –  even if these views are radical – then physical attacks resulting from oppression are diluted. We need to encourage people to talk more, whether about the civil war, about our neighbors, and about sexual and religious taboos. Only then we will be able to make a change and reconcile [with each other].


NOW: So what is the problem we’re facing today as a society?


Bourjeily: The problem is that we are not able to sit down and debate in a civil manner what problems we have with one another, [let alone] finding any middle ground. We need to accept each other as we are. We need to put ourselves in each other’s shoes to know what they are feeling. Allowing others to express themselves [is the only way] we can know what they are enduring.


NOW: In whose shoes would you put yourself today?


Bourjeily: I would like to put myself in the shoes of the General Security Bureau military personnel who are oppressing us today. Why would a military officer who wants to serve their country be interested in sitting in an office all day reading scripts? I’m sure that was not the task they expected when they signed up for this job. It’s as if you are asking of me, as an artist, to come up with a defense strategy to protect our borders from any interference. So, why do these military men put up with this? How good do they feel when they go back home knowing they stopped artists from producing [their] work? I would have resigned.


NOW: How would you describe your work?


Bourjeily: My work is centered on experience and storytelling. Since I was a child I used to like to tell stories and to tell the story in a way that the audience could also experience it. And this eventually influenced the artwork that I do. Today I like to tell stories of our society – I am inspired by the issues that are present within the society I live in. It is not a social commentary but also a method for me to diffuse my frustration. So, in summary, my work revolves around telling a certain story that is important to me in the best way possible and using as many senses (seeing, smelling, tasting, etc.) as possible so that the audience can experience it too.


NOW: In your work, you focus especially on the issue of censorship. Why?


Bourjeily: It is very frustrating for an artist to go every time, wait in line, present identification, sit in an office to talk about the play to a military personnel, pay $100, put stamps, do required paper work, and then get called back in only to discover your play is being banned. There is a lot of frustration in this process. The whole system is what inspired me to talk about the issue of censorship here in Lebanon. So, this is why I wrote a play about it, which in the end was also censored.


NOW: Could you tell us more about your play bto2ta3 aw ma bto2ta3?


Bourjeily: I wrote and directed the play and the NGO MARCH produced it. We presented it in four universities because no permits are needed for university activities as opposed to public events. We then decided to go public and screen it at the al-Madina theater and therefore submitted the play for a permit in August 2013. A month later they called us in to discuss the play. It was very awkward telling the censorship bureau that the play was about them and their censorship activities.


We met with the general of the bureau who shouted at us like children saying the play is a masquerade and that it is far from reality… The irony was that what happened that day was very similar to what happens in the play. You can imagine [how strange it felt knowing] we were in a place where we could eventually get locked up in.


It wasn’t a debate. It was a one-way communication saying how bad the play was and how bad we were portraying them, and that the play will never pass. Until this day we have never received a formal rejection from the bureau. They did, however, go on national television saying that the work was presented to four unnamed art critics who believed that it was not up to standards and that I am delusional. They criticized me without giving me the option to respond.


NOW: What would you say to them?


Bourjeily: I would tell them that we (Lebanese) want you to be there to protect the country. We do want a strong state where we feel secure, where we all share equal rights. There should be other security concerns they should be worrying about given our situation today. Over 200 people are employed to watch DVDs and read books and scripts. There are more important issues in Lebanon that need to be addressed, unless truth is of far more danger to people.

Lucien Bourjeily, an advocate for freedom of expression. (Facebook photo)

"Why would a military officer who wants to serve their country be interested in sitting in an office all day reading scripts?"

  • jasvella


    May 19, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Thank you, Lucien Bourjeily.

    March 17, 2014