Leaning against a balcony, a woman talks to her love ; her dress hangs loose, exposing a shoulder. Two birds are mating. A young woman wears shortsl young people dance together at a Palestinian wedding in the movie Pomegranates and Myrrh; a man shouts at his wife... These are examples of scenes censored by the government censorship committee during the international film festival “Through Women’s Eyes”, organized by the Women’s Affairs Center in 2011, with the participation of movies from Egypt, Lebanon, Spain, Algeria and Ramallah.
The festival is held every two years and crumbles under the weight of censorship. Not only do the censors target this festival, they also views all movies screened during any public gatherings and other festivals in the Gaza Strip, causing great harm to the film industry. This industry is already extremely weak, not only because of the lack of funding, equipment and studios, but also because of the almost inexistent role of cinemas in the Gaza Strip. Most of the movie theaters have been closed for 35 years now and the remaining ones are either empty or have been destroyed more than once by religious groups in the 1980s and 1990s under the pretext of preserving morals and values and protecting generations to come. Some of them have also been converted into wedding venues or bat nests.
A Palestinian Woman Would Not Do That
The beginning was undeniably stormy: in December 2010, Khalil Al-Mozian’s movie “Masho Matok” was censored in spite of its participation in number of international festivals, including Cannes. However, the filmmaker refused to release his film in Gaza movie theaters, after the government censorship committee decided to censor a four-second scene, where Israeli soldiers appreciatively eye a comely Palestinian woman who breezes past them, her hair uncovered.
Culture Ministry director Mustafa Al-Sawaf described the images as out of context, saying that the young woman was leaning and laughing while looking at the Israeli soldiers, which was not appropriate. “Palestinian women would not do that”, he added.
According to the general coordinator of the “Through Women’s Eyes” festival, Etimad Washeh, censorship began in 2009, when the censorship committee of the Ministry of Culture decided to view the movies before allowing their projection during the festival.
“The Ministry of Culture’s censorship committee was not as inflexible as the current committee, which was formed by the government’s press office. It mainly focused on standards of decency. Erotic scenes could be censored but it is unacceptable to censor a scene from a Spanish movie showing a girl wearing shorts or sometimes up to 10 or 15 minutes of a movie, under the pretext of preserving the morals of young people attending the festival”, Washeh said in an interview with SKeyes. “This argument is invalid because they decided to separate men and women during the movie projection”, she added.
Artists Complain, Censors Respond
“The press office that replaces the Information Ministry is only regulating the media and art scenes, in accordance with the Press and Publications Law that the press office considers as a legal reference. The press office works off this basis when organizing film festivals and delivering permits to encourage production companies, journalists and producers”, said Rami Al-Gharbawi, the acting press and publications director.
“No festival was ever banned in advance, as long as all the documents required to organize it were presented, namely the title, the place and the hours of projection. The movies will be viewed by an ad hoc committee and the permit would then be delivered, so long as the movies do not violate Palestinian values. A committee of experts in movies and scripts within the press office will subsequently evaluate the movies”, he added.
As general coordinator of the festival, Washeh is allowed to view the movies with the censorship committee at the headquarters of the press office. Remarks will then be sent to the festival organizers to inform them about the scenes that need to be censored. Washeh said she was forced to accept all remarks otherwise the festival would be banned. The considerable efforts to organize the festival and coordinate with Arab and foreign countries would thus be vain.
Al-Gharbawi, who firmly disagrees with this, said the censored scenes do not affect the story line. The basic principle is to organize the festival and be able to project all movies; the organizers have to abide by the remarks because the movies are evaluated by experts.
Al-Gharbawi paid tribute to the efforts carried out by the organizers of such important festivals as well as those of young female filmmakers. He also said that a debate was regularly held between the committee members and the festival organizers concerning scenes that need to be censored, without exerting pressure on anyone.
Washeh said that taking into account religious and ethical conditions rather than creativity and art does not only apply to the festivals that take place in Gaza but also in Arab countries. She also said that the Women’s Affairs Center would never organize a festival that violates morals and values. Every year, the Center chooses a committee to select movies and there is no need to have another politicized committee. According to Washeh, the festival has a clear, transparent and cultural message. She added that the press office also views the movies during the festival to make sure that all the remarks are taken into consideration.
It is surprising that despite a near-total absence of movie theaters, strong censorship and the banning of films, such as the Egyptian movie “Another Passion”, which was supposed to be projected during last year’s festival, take place in Palestine. It is indeed in this same country that Badr and Ibrahim Lama produced “A kiss in the desert” in 1927, the oldest silent movie in the history of the Arab world cinema. The two brothers had pursued cinema studies in Chile before returning to Jaffa with their movies and ideas, but the revolution and the British mandate forced them to move to Alexandria.
A Filmmaker Who Censors Movies
Amr Badawi is one of the members of the government’s censorship committee who viewed the movies of the women’s international festival in 2011; he is a documentary producer. He said that scenes undermining morals are censored in accordance with the law and are not subject to the committee members’ mood.
As for “Another Passion”, Badawi said the movie was banned because it tackles the problems of young adolescents and does not reflect the reality in Gaza. He also insisted that the censorship mechanism is the result of collective discussions with the festival’s organizers.
Washeh said “Al-Funjan” (The coffee cup) is the first short movie produced by Nahil Al-Sultan, a young Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. This movie is a love story in which a fortune-teller reads the future of a young woman. Censors initially wanted to ban the movie, claiming that witchcraft does not reflect the reality in Gaza. Mediators were sent to discuss the issue with the committee to avoid a full ban. Badawi said that the movie was eventually projected to pay tribute to both the artistic work and the efforts carried out by the director, which proves that there was no intention of banning the movie.
As a movie producer, Badawi undeniably knows that art and creativity cannot be judged by how close they are linked to reality. A scene showing young Palestinians dancing during a wedding could upset some ideologies but is completely normal for the majority.
However, Badawi said that the censorship standards do not depend on any specific political identity or religious vision but on the Press and Publications law and other legislation. The script changes are written down on paper to prove that there is no exaggeration in censorship, such as the scene of two birds mating at the end of Nabila Mabruk’s movie.
Badawi also said that, if ever there was ever a disagreement with his colleague in the committee, legal advisor Maher Qarout, they would both seek the opinion of their colleague at the government’s press office, Salameh Maarouf. A Ministry of Culture representative was supposed to join the committee but he did not; Badawi denied the presence of representatives of the Interior and Religious Endowments ministries within the censorship committee.
Taxi, to the Al-Nasr movie theater!
Amidst this conflict between ideology and creativity, people have forgotten that the first movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s in Jaffa, Acre and Haifa, played a pioneering role in the establishment of an innovative cultural project in the Middle East. Today, this national heritage is under attack: nine movie theaters, such as Al-Nasr, Amer, Al-Samer, Al-Jala’, Al-Khadra’, Al-Hamra’ and Al-Salam were burned, destroyed and shut down in 35 years at the hands of fundamentalist religious groups that created de facto censorship committees, particularly between 1987 and 1996,. The “Al-Nasr cinema” sign is nothing more than a benchmark for taxi drivers and passengers to find their way inside the city. Unfortunately, the days where people used to stop at the ticket window to buy their seats are over!