Censors target Beirut film festival

The Ayam Beirut film festival only just launched this weekend, and already one of its movie is fighting government censorship. But with sixty local and international movies on the program, censorship is just one of the discussions taking place. MENASSAT's Sawseen Kawzally has this report.
beirut film festival

BEIRUT, October 20, 2008 (MENASSAT) – This weekend's opening of the 5th Ayam Beirut Film Festival in Beirut was marred by the cancellation of the screening of Tunisian director Jilani Saadi's movie, Ors al-Dib Tunis, after Lebanese authorities failed to release it for its October 19 premiere.

With a reputation for being one of the Arab world's most edgy venues for independent film, film goers were shocked to find a statement left by festival organizers, Beirut DC. 

"We hope to screen Jilani Saadi's movie Ors al-Dib Tunis on Thursday October 23, 7 p.m." the statement said in reference to attempts to clear the film from the government chopping block.

According the film festival's brochure, Ors Al-Dib Tunis is about "a very particular night in Tunis. A young man, Stoufa, rebellious and humiliated, meets a young and pretty prostitute. She has been raped by his friends and decides to take her vengeance out on Stoufa. He searches for her all night long, but she is difficult to find."

It's apparently subject matter that Lebanon's General Security Directorate, which handles censorship, found too racy.

'Inciting sectarian violence'

Beirut DC was founded in 1999 by a group of cinema professionals and art advocates, and since Ayam Beirut Film Festival's inception in 2001, festival organizers had managed to elude Lebanese censors. Until this year, that is.

In fact, government censors also tried to clip the opening film Semaan bil Dayaa (The One Man Village), directed by Simon Haber and co-produced by Beirut DC.

Apparently General Security thought a sentence in Semaan bil Dayaa could "incite sectarian violence" given that the principal character for this "creative documentary" lived alone in a Christian village, Ain Halzoun, that was destroyed by militias associated with the Druze-based Progressive Socialist Party after the Israeli withdrawal from Mount Lebanon in 1982. The village still lays in ruin.

Sources told MENASSAT that a high-ranking official in the government intervenes ultimately allowing for the movie to screen in its entirety.

General Security said they have the right to censor any film whether they are for commercial use or for use in film festivals.

This year's festival is dedicated to the late director Randa al-Chahhal, who filmed continuously for 15 years to finish Horobana al-Ta'isha (Our Heedless Wars). She died on August 25. General Security originally censored Horoban Al-Ta'isha for this year's festival because Al-Chahhal didn't have the authorization to film back in 1996.

A confrontational filmmaker known for her unflinching approach to social issues, Al-Chahhal's Horoban Al-Ta'isha was ultimately saved for this year's festival after a high-ranking government official again intervened on the film's behalf. Al-Chahhal's first film, Khotwa Khotwa (Step by Step, 1996) will also be screened.

In panel discussions over the weekend, the censorship attempts were the subject of debate.

Jilani Saadi said he was surprised by Lebanon's move to censor his film Ors al-Dib Tunis even after his film was already banned by Syria and Algeria.

Thanks to the censors

Al-Saadi said that the management of the Algerian Film Festival refused to screen Ors Al-Dib-Tunis even after it was officially chosen as a festival entry.

"This is however the first time a movie of mine was banned like this. This movie was screened in Oman, Dubai and Tunisia and will soon be screened in Morocco. I didn't think censors could ban a movie in a film festival which is clearly different from movie theaters and television."

Even with censorship being a regular issue with media in the Arab world, Al-Saadi expressed his disappointment that a creative process could come so far and fall short of its intended audience – especially when, as Al-Saadi noted, making movies in the Arab world is often an extreme challenge with rare funds and little official help.

"I want to thank the censorship for all this interest and free publicity," Al-Saadi said, "although I would have preferred if people knew me for my work not because it was banned."

But censorship is not the only problem facing Arab film directors.

Egyptian director Ibrahim Al-Batout also told the audience about the difficulties of making cinema in the Arab world. His second feature film, The Eye of the Sun, was made with few resources, and instead relied on the resources of the Cairo neighborhood – Ain Shames - where the film was centered.

"It was the spirit of the team and the actors who agreed to work pro bono, in coordination with the complete cooperation the citizens of the neighborhood that welcomed the team with complete openness during the filming process," Al-Batout told MENASSAT.

Ayam organizers have also set up a series of discussion sessions in the margin of the festival, concerning the development of documentaries, and it will offer a specialized workshop on digital production in film and television in collaboration with the German institution Insight Out, in addition to a master class with Bruno Ulmer on creative documentary making.

In the end, the Ayam Beirut Film Festival will continue to live up to its reputation among Arab moviegoers that are looking for something other than box-office success.

Organizers have even promised that one-third of the money from this year's tickets sales will go into funding a Lebanese feature film to be chosen during a special pitching session in which the participants will present their ideas.