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How wary is the world?

A look at how governments and artists are dealing with issues of suppression and self-censorship

MIDEAST

While social mores are loosening with the proliferation of satellite technology and mass entertainment, some big no-no’s remain — namely religion, politics and sex.

Just one example: “The Da Vinci Code” found itself banned in Lebanon in September 2004 after local Catholic leaders decried the book.

However, Arab filmmakers appear willing to push the limits of censorship.

Top of the bill is Egyptian “The Yacoubian Building.” The biggest-budget Arab film of all time ($4 million) tackles a handful of issues from fundamentalism to corruption. Most touchy, though, is its depiction of homosexuality. The censors have not yet wielded their scissors.

Lebanese filmmaker Jocelyn Saab also tested local attitudes with “Dunia, Kiss Me Not on the Eyes.”

The pic, looking at a young Egyptian’s struggles with her sensuality, also touches on the subject of female circumcision. It attracted a hailstorm of criticism as helmer Saab struggled for three years to get her film passed by Egyptian censors. She finally received approval and preemed the film late last year at the Cairo Film Festival.

Elsewhere, however, the picture is less rosy.

The rise of religious Islamic TV is increasingly finding eager auds in the region.

The result: mainstream satcasters are having to keep up. MBC, Dubai TV and Al Jazeera now regularly feature religious programs.

Saudi-owned satcaster MBC shot itself in the foot when it acquired rights to air an Arab-language version of “The Simpsons.”

All references to Homer’s beloved Duff Beer have been replaced with soda, and Moe’s Bar has been expunged.

While Arab filmmakers attempt to rid themselves of lingering self-censorship, western directors continue to face problems getting their pics past local censors.

“Lord of War” recently experienced cuts after censors took exception to scenes of Muslim militias buying weapons from a Jewish arms dealer to use against Christian militias during the Lebanese civil war. Similarly, “Munich,” though passing uncut in Israel, has only been approved in the UAE and Egypt, albeit with minor nudity cuts.

The region’s most extreme reactions can be found in Iran.

In recent months, the hardline regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has banned everything from Western films to music.

One unlikely casualty of the Danish cartoon fiasco has been Danish pastries. Though too popular with locals to be banned outright, the sweet snacks have now been renamed “Roses of the Prophet Mohammad.”

— Ali Jaafar

CHINA

Overseas TV channels are only allowed in certain designated “foreigner compounds” and Guangdong province, regularly used for experiments in liberalism.

On the other hand, China turns a blind eye to a large amount of western reporting, apparently believing that few people in China read foreign languages and what is written in the overseas press.

Taboo issues such as state corruption, Tibet, Taiwan, explicit sex and religious cults are not new. More mainstream religious freedom, if anything, may be gaining ground in China — though most commentators pragmatically prefer not to shout this from the pulpit.

There’s new vigilance, however, to avoid giving offense to other countries, through depictions of invasions, uprisings or civil wars. While China may seem to have a long list of border disputes with its neighbors, Beijing goes to great pains to avoid creating diplomatic incidents. Hence, no James Bond on Chinese screens.

Worse still is China’s fear of anything that may trigger a popular revolt. Even on the foreign channels in the permitted enclaves, it is common for TV screens to go blank during newscasts about civilian disobedience.

The Chinese government apparently employs 40,000 civil servants whose job is to monitor and, if necessary block, Websites that overstep the mark on any taboo subjects. A number of bloggers and chat sites have been closed down.

Most notoriously, Yahoo helped Beijing authorities to prosecute and imprison Mainland journalist Shi Tao by handing over his email account info. It did the same in 2003 with dissident Li Zhi. Both are now in jail.

But there are several instances where Chinese censors appear to have eased up.

As China cuts the amount of subsidy to its own media, it is having to accept a greater degree of freedom for the press, broadcasters and movie-makers. International co-productions, now being encouraged for their positive impact on infrastructure, are expected to herald further flexibility.

Some filmmakers even report that if they stick to the rules, by carefully submitting scripts to the China Film Corp. or diligently running festival invitations through the state, they are permitted to tackle trickier subjects.

Trouble is that China rarely puts either its rules or its policy relaxations in writing. Deliberately. This way, following the letter of the law is tricky and most practitioners err on the side of caution.

FRANCE

Sensitivity in France is heightened by the recent riots involving a few of the country’s 5 million Muslims.

President Jacques Chirac told Gallic webs that casting people of North African origin on reality shows like “Star Academy” was not enough, and last week TF1 announced it had hired its first black newscaster.

In keeping with France’s libertarian stereotype, films containing explicit sex go on general release and portrayals of homosexual love in French movies are run of the mill.

Yet, to the chagrin of the film biz which sees this as a shift in the moral climate, France’s film classification board has been changed to give greater place to non-professionals repping family orgs.

And private lives remain a no-go area, backed by legislation that makes it an offense, for instance, to publish photos of a celeb walking in a public place in full view of passers-by. Gerard Depardieu successfully sued a French magazine for printing a photo of him pushing his mistress’ baby in a public park.

Self-censorship — dressed up as a sense of propriety — does the rest.

Alison James

GERMANY

“Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” a Turkish pic about a rogue agent from Ankara out to stop a bloodthirsty U.S. military commander in Iraq, recently created quite a ruckus.

Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber called the film “irresponsible,” adding that it did “not promote integration, but rather hate against the West.”

Charlotte Knobloch, VP of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, also slammed the pic for stoking anti-Semitic sentiment and similarly appealed to exhibs to pull the pic.

Government leaders have expressed most concern about the pic’s popularity among Germany’s massive Turkish community, warning that it could radicalize Turkish youths in Germany.

The calls to ban the pic quickly alarmed many in the film community, who were eager to defend the pic’s right to exist, despite its content.

The German Assn. of Directors said in a statement: “Whether the film is good or bad, anti-American or anti-Islamic, is irrelevant in a debate on censorship.”

On Feb. 24, Bavaria’s state minister Eberhard Sinner, who oversees media affairs, came to a similar conclusion after holding a round-table discussion with fellow politicos and film industry reps.

Ed Meza

HOLLAND

Reflecting on the murder of director Theo Van Gogh by a religious extremist, Hans Otten, chairman of Dutch Documentary & Independent Film Assn., says: “For a long time in Holland, there has been a feeling that religion is not important in public life anymore. Personally I now feel that it is important to find a balance between freedom of expression and respect for other cultures. I don’t believe democracy can work without that balance.”

Industry estimates are that 5% of those in Dutch film and TV business are of minority heritage. In the territory’s four major urban areas, 66% of the population under the age of 30 come from minority communities.

Efforts have increased to bring more minority filmmakers into the community and to make more films that express their daily realities.

Berbers points to projects in the development stage, among them “Blood Brothers,” a project by three Turkish-Dutch filmmakers.

“The President,” a sequel to “Schnitzel Paradise,” has been awarded funding, as has Algerian Dutch filmmaker Karim Traidia for his “Chronicles of Algeria.”

Marlene Edmunds

INDIA

Because India is an uneasy secular democracy, with different groups sensitive to different slights, filmmakers are increasingly having to tread lightly.

Last May, cinemas dropped screenings of Hindi-language “Jo bole so nihal” after protests and two bomb attacks by Sikhs. The blasts left one person dead and injured 49.

Sikh groups argued the film belittled their religion, because the title means “blessed is the one,” which is part of a Sikh religious chant used in battle and prayer. They were also offended by scenes showing the central character, a Sikh policeman, being chased by scantily-clad women.

Indian-born director Deepa Mehta received death threats when she tried to shoot “Water” in the Hindu holy city of Benares. Pic revolves around prostitution in British-ruled India. Eventually she shot the film in Sri Lanka.

It opened the Toronto Fest last September and won best film at Bangkok in February, despite the hesitation of Thai distrib Sahamongkol to enter it in the fest. Pic is unlikely to be screened in India.

The Tamil film “Boys” received threats from groups in Tamilnadu because of its sexual explicitness.

“It was protested by women groups who wanted the movie to be banned and the director and writer to tender public apologies — or else they would be handed over to terrorists,” the pic’s screenwriter Sujata says.

But, he also points out, in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh the film did not cause a furor at all. Protests seem to depend on whether the creatives are well known , he suggests.

Shali Dore and Bryan Pearson

RUSSIA

Politics rather than religion is the thorniest issue here, especially since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s regime in 2000.

According to one industry insider, “Censorship of TV news is no secret, except that it’s long become self-censorship: Every editor is trying to do what he thinks he’s supposed to do — and people are afraid of their bosses.”

Last year’s staff changes at REN TV, which saw a leading anchor and her producers effectively pushed out of the door for their critical reportage, was the most recent case.

Film funding for potentially more controversial projects, especially when applying through state sources, also looks tricky.

Sam Klebanov, head of producer-distributor Film Without Borders, wonders what the underlying “ideological ground rules” may be. He’s trying to develop a Russian remake of Johnnie To’s “Breaking News,” satirizing local police incompetence and the official manipulation of media.

“Some critical pics are still being greenlit — you can criticize the police. But the reaction to the media manipulation side — I don’t know,” Klebanov said.

Some producers are now trying to get funding on the basis of a script, and then putting the risky bits in later.

Ilya Khrjanovsky’s “4,” which screened at Venice 2004 and won a Rotterdam Tiger last year, is a bleak picture of Russia. Its local distribution certificate was long denied; the pic finally emerged in a release tiny even by local arthouse standards.

This year, the depiction of World War II has also become a sensitive issue.

The release in February of Alexander Atanesyan’s blockbuster “Scum,” about a training school for kids being groomed for suicide missions against the Nazis, drew a rebuke from Russia’s KGB-like body the FSB that no such institutions had existed in Russia (although, it noted, they had in Nazi Germany).

Tom Birchenough

SCANDINAVIA

Apart from ongoing discussion about the limits of free speech, there is a new awareness of how anything published, said or done can travel the world — and have unforeseen consequences.

So far, no films, TV shows, books or exhibits have been scrapped as a direct result of the Danish cartoons.

But there is a new wariness about offending certain groups. And the wariness almost always has to do with religious or ethnic groups, since political or sexual themes rarely are regarded as provocative in Scandinavia.

In February, as Muslim protests against Danish cartoons were raging, the Museum of World Culture in Goteborg took down a Louiza Darabi painting depicting a sex act combined with quotes from the Koran had given rise to loud protests from Muslim orgs.

The management’s decision was unanimously criticized by Swedish media.

Pia Lundberg

THAILAND

The Thai government regularly bullies and cajoles the media into helping promote a positive image of the country. Much of its effort is directed toward suppression of info about the separatist and religious uprisings in the southernmost provinces.

Billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has ushered in an era of growing authoritarianism since being elected in 2001. He has used libel laws against journalists who claim that government policies benefited his family-controlled telecoms and media firm Shin Corp. Newscasters have been forced to resign after criticism of senior figures in the military.

Issues of corruption and media-meddling may have brought down the government, but with opinion polls suggesting that Shinawatra will likely be reelected by the country’s grateful rural majority, the Thai public is apparently prepared to put up with a less than free press as long as the economy continues to grow.