Film tests cultural mores in Lebanon – banned by censors

On February 16 Lebanese director Marc Abi Rached’s film “Help” was banned by Lebanon’s censors after they had previously granted the film permission to screen. The film’s producers described the film as trying to put a human face to taboo issues such as prostitution, homelessness, and drugs. MENASSAT sat down with the director for a chat to discuss the latest developments.
A shot of the poster from Marc Abi Rached's film "Help." Abi Rached is looking for markets outside of Lebanon since the film was banned on February 16.

BEIRUT, March 5, 2009 (MENASSAT) - At the beginning of February, large blue posters with “Help, Help, Help” written over them in bold white letters started to appear on walls all over Beirut. With no other information provided than “Help," the mysterious street posters definitely created a buzz about town.

The posters were the advertising or “teasing campaign” for Lebanese director Marc Abi Rached’s film “Help,” which was banned from movie theaters on February 16 after Lebanon’s General Security had previously granted the film’s producers permission to screen.

“I wanted people to stop and react. That was the goal. We were supposed to replace those ‘teaser posters’ with the real movie poster when the film opened. But that didn’t happen, obviously,” Abi Rached told MENASSAT.

Banned with no explanation

Help, produced on a $200,000 budget in Beirut, is Abi Rached’s first feature film and offers a glimpse into underground life in Beirut through a number of colorful troubled characters.

When asked about the title for the film, Abi Rached said he chose “Help” because all the personalities in the film are in need of help in one way or another.

And so is the film, apparently.

The director maintains he received no explanation for the pulling of his film from the censorship authorities.

“We haven’t received a statement from the authorities. Nothing,” said Abi Rached.

To be sure the film is testing the cultural mores of Lebanese life.

There is 14-year old Ali whose life is in complete chaos. Ali’s life changes when he meets Souraya, a prostitute who is living under threats from a mobster named Jacques. Thrown into the mix are the taxi driver Maroun and a gay character.

Abi Rached emphasizes that he previously received permission both for the film script and the production part from General Security’s censorship department. Then around the time of the preview screening of Help, Abi Rached says the permission was suddenly revoked on Feb 16.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing in the history of film. That they give you permission at first and then take it away from you,” he said.

What does Abi Rached then think the reasons behind the censorship might be?

Shaking his head, the director takes a sip of his coffee and says, “I'm not sure”, adding, he suspects it “involves a personal decision from above.”

Does he think some of the controversial scenes in the film, such as the sexual encounter between a prostitute and two gay men, perhaps had an influence on the censorship?

“The scene was done all under the covers. You couldn’t see anything,” he responds.
“Here (in Lebanon), there is a limit for the number of seconds you are allowed to show nude scenes. We were far below that limit. In total, there is only around six seconds of nudity in the film."

Alternative theories and the role of the media

Meanwhile, other theories over the banning of Help have surfaced.

The organization Skeyes, the Center for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of murdered Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, claimed a Catholic organization had a role in the decision to ban Abi Rached’s film.

Another report suggested that the film was banned because the officer in charge of censorship was replaced.

Whatever the reason, Abi Rached told MENASSAT that General Security’s decision to stop the films screening after previously granted permission leaves his production team with an option to take legal action.

For now, Abi Rached says he is using the media to get his message out to the authorities.

“Everyday we do interviews about what happened to us.”

The director says he is also looking for alternative markets outside Lebanon for his film.

Real threats

Apart from being tangled up with the censorship authorities, Abi Rached claims he has been subject to threats from what he calls “extremists” for his film.

He says he found the threats real enough to leave his house for a few days.

“I expected some harassment but I didn’t think it would be this much,” said Abi Rached. “I wanted to show (issues like) prostitution and homelessness in a non-cliché way. I wanted to show these people as persons, as human beings,” he added.

Abi Rached recalls two messages in particular. One read: “May the lord put fire in your soul.” Another warned: “If the movie comes out, you (Abi Rached) won’t be able to see it in the theatres.” 

One person angered by Abi Rached’s movie project even referred to the director as another Salman Rushdie, a reference to the British Indian novelist and essayist who was given a fatwa by the late Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for his fourth novel, The Satanic Versus (1988).

Despite threats and government censorship, Abi Rached remains defiant, saying he refuses to cut out any time from his film and give into the censors. What he would agree on instead, says the director, is a rating for the film that meant it could only be seen by screened for audiences over 21 years of age.

A group set up for Help on Facebook provides up-to-date information on the film.