There’s a massive tug-of-war happening in the countries of the Arab world, between a globalized population more fluent in Kanye than the Quran, and an entrenched political class allied with hidebound religious authorities.
Film and TV are at the forefront of this fight, and the people in power have long recognized the force of the moving image in guiding cultural evolution and political awareness. From Egypt’s repressive military dictatorship to the shambolic power struggles in Lebanon, those who rule use censorship as a means of keeping dissent in check, convinced of the age-old formula that thick truncheons and thin skin are the most effective recipe for maintaining dominance.
This means that the politics of the Arab Spring are quashed. With “revolution” branded a dirty word, making criticism of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, or the king of Morocco, non-starters. Since those in power prop up their positions with the help of mutually supportive religious hierarchies, any socially forward-thinking idea is also taboo, especially expressions of female sexuality and gay issues.
Despite countries in the MENA (Middle East-North Africa) region being socially and culturally diverse, entrenched ruling parties, along with the rise of Islamic conservativism, have sent a chill in the creative communities precisely at the moment when talented filmmakers are itching to tell stories relevant on local and international levels.
Most people in Egypt’s cultural sector have reported being under surveillance — offices raided, apartments watched. A few rare, brave independent news sites like Mada Masr do their jobs wondering how much longer they’ll be allowed to continue.
“Ending censorship was an important demand of the intellects in the revolution,” says Mohamed Diab, whose film “Clash” in Un Certain Regard is the sole Egyptian entry at Cannes this year. “When the Islamists were in power, they couldn’t impose their conservative agenda because they were under much scrutiny. Ironically, now the new regime needs to prove to the Egyptian masses that they are more religious than the Islamists, so we see more people being persecuted and jailed.”
Countries that didn’t experience the revolutions first hand are hardly immune from these impositions. For example, the Algerian government’s long-standing aversion to criticism casts a pall over film production and has forced noted directors like Merzak Allouache to work in France (and when he does shoot in his home country, the films are often banned from the nation’s few remaining theaters). In Morocco, Hicham Lasri’s scabrous satires, with their outright critiques of the monarchy, land him in hot water, while Nabil Ayouch’s “Much Loved” was banned for its unblinkered depiction of prostitution and women’s overt sexuality.
Lebanon may be thought of as one of the more liberal societies in the region, yet the country’s tinderbox political scene means that censorship is a frequent recourse for power players wanting to suppress any message not their own. Farah Shaer’s 2012 short “I Offered You Pleasure,” about Shia pleasure marriages, was rejected by the censors, with the minister of the interior going on television saying the film “puts the state in danger.” Complicating matters in Lebanon, several directors report being contacted by Hezbollah and told to change their scripts, or the militant group wouldn’t allow shooting to begin.
Of course the bastard child of censorship is self-censorship, that invidious but often understandable form of auto-straitjacketing.
“Everyone I know begged me not to make ‘Clash,’ ” Diab says. “They thought in troubled times like these, a political-action thriller would be very dangerous. Ironically, the film isn’t really about criticizing the government or any side; it’s more about self-discovery and the human condition.” He pushed through with the project, but remains wary. “Although I was politically active during the revolution, I decided to stop expressing my opinions even through social media, for fear that anything could stop my very controversial project,” Diab says.
As Egyptian helmer Yousry Nasrallah points out, pressure also comes from producers.
“Mainstream producers will be wary of projects dealing with police corruption or religious issues,” he says. “This, of course, influences writers and directors who prefer to have their scripts produced by big producers rather than by independent companies who rely on the long and winding routes of international funding.”
Certain directors or performers are singled out. It’s no secret that popular star Khaled Abol Naga’s criticism of Sisi has closed many doors in the Egyptian film industry. Even classic films aren’t safe, since the rights to most movies from the Golden Age are owned by Saudi Arabia’s Rotana, which frequently cuts content on pan-Arab broadcasts and DVDs in order to conform to stricter censorship codes.
It can be argued that the publicity surrounding banned and censored films can sometimes help get the word out.
“If it’s banned, it will shed more light on the project and people will realize these censorship laws are arbitrary,” Shaer says. “They’ll hear more about your film, but they’ll also know more about the dictatorship.”