DIFF Daily 2010

Dealing with censorship

Dec 17,2010 - 05:24 PM

When it comes to dealing with censors, says independent Egyptian
producer Sherif Mandour, ‘we have a trick. When we have a political
film, we add 10 percent of rubbish – lots of nudity, bad words – so
they can ask us to cut it. They have to cut something. It’s their
job.’

Mandour, whose latest film, ‘Cairo Exit’, had its world premiere at
DIFF last night, was speaking at the Dubai Film Forum’s industry
panel, ‘Freedom to Create’. The panel dealt with the challenges of
navigating state censorship systems throughout the Middle East.

The levels of stringency vary considerably. ‘What’s completely wrong
in Iran might be accepted in Egypt and commonplace in Lebanon,’
Mansour said. In Egypt, failure to comply with protocols of script
approval and shooting permits can result in two years in jail, though
this is rarely implemented. Such permissions are often granted
retrospectively, though sometimes with accompanying demands for
alterations.

Such a ‘compromise’ system is also common in Lebanon, according to
The Beirut Metropolis cinema’s Hania Mroue, also a programmer for Tribeca
Doha and Beirut film festivals and part of a group of Lebanese
cultural leaders mounting a legal challenge to censorship. ‘We’re
known as the country of free expression in the Middle East so for the
government it’s very bad to have an article saying ‘censorship bans
this film’,’ she added. ‘Their answer is: ‘People in Lebanon are not
ready to talk about this and if you start, people will attack you.
It’s for your own good.’’

The experience of Beirut-based documentary-maker Katia Saleh suggests
some grounding to this. Saleh made a documentary for Al Jazeera about
young romance against the backdrop of a ritual of blood and
self-flagellation in southern Lebanon. After she posted the trailer on
YouTube, she received threats and felt unable to let the broadcast go
ahead. ‘My own people wouldn’t accept it but it has won prizes around
the world.’

Since then, Saleh has produced the Arab world’s first web drama
series, ‘Shankaboot’, whose online status sidesteps many issues. The
BBC World Service backs the series. ‘They said, ‘Let’s talk
about everything the youth can’t see [on approved platforms]:
corruption, prostitution, domestic violence, drugs, homosexuality,
sexuality in general.’ The censors haven’t got us yet. We still have
to submit the script and they tell us to be careful but we ignore them
and they don’t watch it.’

‘It’s a bit more complicated in Iran,’ said Sepideh Farsi, an Iranian
filmmaker based in Paris. Her film ‘The House Under the Water’
receives its world premiere at DIFF 2010. ‘If you shoot without a
permit, usually you cannot get a permit afterwards so you can’t screen
it in the country, and if you take it out of the country you’ll be
banned [from further production].’ The restrictions on content are
also tighter. ‘In Iran, very quickly you hit the wall,’ Farsi said. ‘A
woman showing a bit of hair or a bit of her neck, men and women just
touching hands is impossible. And for actors being in a film that gets
censored blocks the rest of their career. It’s a mixture of personal
ego, bureaucracy and of course political censorship.’

Winning international awards can embarrass censors into retroactively
approving an unofficial project. This happened with Egyptian director
Ibrahim el Batout’s debut feature, ‘Ithaki’. El Batout argued that
censorship cannot succeed. ‘They’re trying to stop people seeing what
they see every day. It’s a very surreal human exercise. It’s like
saying you can live without breathing or you can think but not
imagine. It has no efficiency.’

Yet limitations of any kind can yield inventive approaches. ‘It’s not
a good thing but it does make you to some extent more creative,’ Farsi
acknowledged. ‘But it’s a dangerous thing to say: ‘censorship makes me
a better artist’.’

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