'Help' Lebanese Film and Freedom of Expression, or Christians Learn from Khomeini
‘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.’ (NOW Lebanon)
With Nadine Labaki's 'Caramel', it appeared that Lebanese cinema was taking a new direction. For starters, it was refreshing to see a film that addressed the contemporary reality of Beirut and moving away from the subject matter of the civil war that had for long occupied Lebanese filmmakers. Also, the film tackled, ever so gently, some of the 'taboos' in Lebanese society, such as homosexuality, virginity, and extra-marital affairs. Lebanese audiences were waiting for the release of Marc Abi Rached's film 'Help' which was expected to be more daring in dealing with such social issues, however this was not meant to be. As Pierre Abi Saab reports today in Al-Akhbar, the Lebanese film censoring authority has withdrawn a license that it had previously issued, meaning that the film has effectively been banned.
There has been speculation since the license for the film was revoked about the reasons for this decision. One theory was that the officer in charge of the licensing the film was replaced, a bit flimsy in my opinion. Others said it was because of the nudity in the film, especially that the actress involved is the daughter of a Lebanese MP. But Abi Rached said in an interview that he stayed well within the limit allowed by Lebanese Law on nudity. The organization Skeyes, the Centre for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms founded in memory of murdered Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, claimed that a Catholic organization had a role in the decision to ban Abi Rached’s film.
On the Lebanese Forces discussion forum, (don't ask) the contributors were in favour of showing the film, and someone suggested that it was because 'our southern Iranian neighbours don't like nudity'. (A not-so-subtle reference to the Shiite community). According to Abi Saab's piece in Al-Akhbar today, it appears that they are in for a surprise. Abi Saab attributes the decision to withdraw the license to a 'protest' made by the 'Centre Catholique d’Information', the mouthpiece of the Maronite church in Lebanon. Abi Saab does not cite any sources for his claim, but he is a good critic and a trustworthy journalist, and I would have no reason to doubt his claim.
The film apparently describes the experiences of some of the ‘marginal’ characters of Beirut, a young prostitute, a homeless teenager, and an overtly camp gay character. Abi Saab thinks that it is this character in particular that seems to have offended the church authorities most, and he might be right. Such subjects have certainly been addressed by Lebanese filmmakers in the past, such in Mohammed Soueid’s 'Cinema Fouad' and Akram Zaatari’s 'Majnounak', but those were short ‘documentary’ style films, shown mostly to small audiences. With Help, Abi Rached was preparing to take those subjects to a mass audience in a feature-length format, which might still make it to Europe before it will be seen by Lebanese audiences.
Like 'Caramel' before it, 'Help' appears to be influenced by Almodovar’s work, and certainly from the trailer available online appears to be ‘polished’ technically. It was boldly advertised through a ‘teaser’ campaign, the aforementioned Help signs did not mention the film until sometime later. All of this is significant. Whereas Zaatari’s and Soueid’s work took advantage of the small ‘art house’ context to push the limits, it is high time that the wider audience gets the benefit of a similar experience. I have no idea if Help is any good, but I would have liked to have the opportunity to judge for myself.
What is interesting about the whole episode is the extent to which the language of cultural sensitivity is being deployed nowadays. Those who argue that the Satanic Verses saga was about Islam, and its incompatibility with the modern world, are entirely wrong. It wasn’t Islamists that came up with the idea that speech hurts, in fact it was a by-product of feminism that found its way into the mainstream. Once feminism was dissociated from a wider idea of liberation and started arguing in favour of a particular experience that is distinct from the universal, it inevitably started dabbling with restrictions on speech and expression. That lesson has been learned by everyone, from cultural groups to religious organisations to gay rights campaigners, who all compete nowadays in what they see as defending their constituents from offense.
In that sense, the Catholic Information Centre is not being an outdated religious institution, but a thoroughly postmodern one. Even if it turns out that it was not behind this particular decision to ban 'Help', it has certainly led campaigns in the past against some films and books that it considered offensive, such as The Da Vinci Code. The response should be not to blame religion, but to insist that there is no right not to be offended. This is even more important when the film in question is not an imported one, but someone holding a mirror to the society he lives in, as Abi Rached is trying to do. Let’s find out for ourselves whether we can see our reflection in that mirror.
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