The Arab Storyteller: Film and Censorship in the Middle East

Source: Fares Sokhon, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Source: Fares Sokhon, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Capernaum tells the story of a Lebanese street boy who sues his parents for the crime of giving him life. It is the first-ever film directed by an Arab female to be shortlisted for the Oscars, receiving a fifteen minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier last year.

The success of Capernaum is important in a region with an unquenchable thirst for storytelling, and yet, paradoxically, a lagging film industry; a region where there is an abundance of creativity –of storytellers, filmmakers– coupled with an overt lack of outlets for that creativity to materialize. Despite its success, Capernaum is emblematic of this reality. Nadine Labaki received very little funding for her film. She and her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, who produced the film, had to pull some strings just to see their project come to life, mortgaging their house and delaying payment for their son’s tuition.

This imbalance of abundant talent and yet such little catering for that talent is manifested in both a lack of funding, as with Labaki, and in censorship. Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri is one example of the latter. His film The Insult was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2017. Yet upon his arrival home to Lebanon, Doueiri was detained and accused of treason because parts of his 2012 film The Attack were filmed in Israel, violating Lebanese law. While the film did manage to air in Lebanese cinemas in 2012, it was eventually boycotted by Lebanon, along with many other Arab League members due to its engagement with, and perhaps normalization of, Israel. Doueiri relocated his movie to Paris. What Lebanon did was essentially export its own talent. Ziad Doueiri’s work received worldwide recognition, despite his own government’s attempts to undermine him.

Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud Massad was subjected to a similar degree of scrutiny during the release of his 2017 film Blessed Benefit. The Royal Film Commission denied Massad permission to release the film locally due to its provocative content and so-called misrepresentation of the Jordanian government. Not only did the Royal Film Commission initially grant Massad permission to film in 2014, it also funded his project and hosted a screening of it before announcing this decision. The problem arose in the ambiguity of the criteria with which the Royal Film Commission assesses films, parts of which stipulate that “…material must not include content that provokes civil strife, promotes racism or sectarianism or that could destabilize the security and safety of the country.” These are vague standards that can be manipulated to justify the censorship of any film. What exactly constitutes material that could destabilize the country, and how does one evaluate that?

The omnipresent element of uncertainty that goes into the creation of such projects can be discouraging. The Royal Film Commission can make or break a film, and it is beyond frustrating for creators like Massad to dedicate themselves to a project only to have it disintegrate. That said, the amount of work that goes into the creation of such films may not necessarily pay off in the way that the creator had envisioned. Although Blessed Benefit was selected for a Cannes Film Festival program and received the Abu Dhabi Film Commission Shasha Grant, Massad’s main goal was “to make a film for Jordanians.” The banning of his film directly precludes that.

In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, Massad addressed the current state of the film industry in the Arab world, stating, “I believe it’s only getting harder to make films in Jordan and the Arab world even if we win ten Oscar awards. Even Arab funding is shrinking day by day and only a handful remain functioning and it’s only getting tougher to tell our stories.”

Ten Oscar awards will most certainly not fix the problem at hand. It is deep-set. This difficulty in telling stories is in large part due to the inability of Arab states to fully support the film industry while maintaining the interests of their regimes. Censorship, in any context, will persist as long as people have things to say that those in power do not want to hear– it is a means of turning a blind eye. This is no less true of the creative community; filmmakers are not unlike journalists or political activists in that regard.

Arab countries grossly underestimate how important it is for filmmakers to be able to tell their own stories; not only is it liberating, it is absolutely necessary. Stories about the Arab world need to come from the Arab world– no one is more entitled to that right. If Arabs don’t write their own stories, then who will?

Raya Tarawneh