HELP! was pasted all over Beirut in February on bright blue posters advertising the new Lebanese film addressing sex, prostitution, drugs and homelessness. But anticipation for the movie, which cost over $200,000 to make, came to nothing. The film's directors told NOW that the Censorship Department in the General Security withdrew permission for a planned screening on February 16.
Legislation for film-making here is notoriously difficult, with directors having to submit an outline of the film to censors before beginning shooting, and then submit the finished product to the censors again. The directors of Help, however, say that they had jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops and were granted in July last year a license for screenings in February by General Security’s Supervisory Department.
So why was the film banned? Writer and director Mark Abi Rached said, “the product has not changed,” but the officer in charge of censorship has. Producer Bacchus Elwan told Al-Arabiya that, “the movie was banned because the officer in charge of censorship was replaced and he didn’t like it…he hasn’t seen the movie though.” And the organization Skeyes, the Center for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of assassinated journalist Samir Kassir, suggested that a Catholic organization influenced the decision to ban the film.
The case highlights once more Lebanon’s rigid rules on politics, sex and religion in the media, which figures like Interior Minister Ziad Baroud and Culture Minister Tammam Salam have worked to reduce.
Scenes of a sexual nature
In this particular case, the film has been censored because of its sexually explicit content. The plot centers around a prostitute who lives with a gay friend, and features nudity, sex scenes and strong language. It addresses homelessness and crime in Lebanon.
Interest was piqued by the fact that Joanna Andraus, daughter of MP Antoine Andraus, stars in the film and appears nude. She denied, however, that her father had any objections to the role, and the producer said that the film “addresses the problems of homeless teenagers who end up as sexual delinquents or criminals and draws attention to the necessity of helping them.”
Amr Saed, a spokesman for Skeyes, told NOW that he was disappointed that the film was censored, but “not surprised because…every year there are films and books that are censored.” He suggested that General Security did not act alone in censoring films. “It is religious institutions,” he said, “different sectarian groups. In this [case], it was the Catholic media centre that asked for censorship.” There is, he said, “partnership” between religious institutions and censorship authorities, adding that, “of course sectarian religious institutions have too much power,” over censorship.
A 2008 report by Skeyes highlights other instances of censorship, including the banning last March of the film Persepolis and the fact that the, “Beirut Docu-Days film festival were postponed last October, as their opening film Simon El Haber’s Sema’an Bel Day’a was still unapproved by the General Security, and then the film Ers El Dib by the Tunisian director Jilani El-Sa’adi was postponed...in addition, the law regulating printed media still requires the censorship of newspapers, books and publications published outside of Lebanon.”
General Security in control
The report also complained that, “decisions made to ban movies are often made haphazardly, where the movies are censored according to moral, religious or political standards as Skeyes has been told by a cinema theatre administrator.” In the past, interventions by ministers including former Culture Minister Tarek Mitri have enabled films including Persepolis to be shown. But as Mitri explained to NOW Lebanon, responsibility for such issues lies with the security forces rather than the parts of parliament devoted to culture. The law, said Mitri, “which I don’t like, and which no one likes, gives General Security the right to censor films, theater plays, books, DVDs and other things.”
While in office, Mitri saw himself as an “advocate of freedom,” seeking to overturn a number of censorship rulings. Now, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud and Culture Minister Tammam Salam have both taken anti-censorship stances. The director, Abi Rached, told NOW that Baroud’s office has expressed support for the film, and that the Ministry of Culture is “100% behind the movie.” But as long as General Security operates censorship policies independently, the role of ministers is of polite intervention without official authority. Late last year, Mitri described the banning of Israeli film Waltz With Bashir as ridiculous, but the ban remained.
Hania Mroueh, of Beirut’s only arthouse cinema, Metropolis, has participated in an ongoing workshop on censorship in Lebanon and condemned the, “too complicated,” legislation around film censorship in Lebanon. While reluctant to comment on the specific case of Help, she said that she would not be surprised if there were evidence that religious groups had influenced the decision to censor the film. “This is the way everything works in Lebanon,” she told NOW, and said that there was no need for any such censorship. People are adults, she said, who can make up their own minds and take responsibility for their actions. The ratings system, which forbids people under a certain age from seeing controversial films, was adequate regulation, she said.
Help in the future?
Whether Help will be shown in Beirut is still unclear. According to Skeyes, it is illegal for General Security to censor a film that has been permitted, as Help's directors claim it was, except with the permission of the Interior Minister, so legal action would be an option for the film’s producers. However, Abi Rached told NOW that he was relying on press coverage to influence the authorities. He was prepared, he suggested, to compromise with the censors and agree on a rating for the film that meant it could only be seen by people over 21.
“I am surprised at the way this has turned out,” he said. “I am neither angry, nor upset, nor depressed, I’m just surprised. Before, I was thanking the censorship in each interview for their open-mindedness, and their understanding, and then,” he said sadly, “I went back to earth.