“Censorship in Lebanon is ripe for mockery,” says Nadim Lahoud, creative and executive producer of the new web series “Mamnou3!” (meaning ‘forbidden’ in Arabic). The series, funded and backed by the Samir Kassir foundation, pokes fun at Lebanon’s general security bureau, the body in charge of controlling what we can and cannot see. The series mockingly reproduces the bureau, its members and their daily decision process, and in so doing aims to raise awareness on the “ridiculous” decisions taken by the general security, but “our first aim is to have fun”, adds Lahoud.
With the first episode launched on the July 1, the remaining nine episodes will be uploaded at one-week intervals. With each episode lasting no longer than eight minutes, the web series is designed to be easily shareable for people via the Internet, whether ‘tweeted’ or posted on their Facebook wall or blog. The production took place in Lebanon with a team of 35, of which 12 actors. Nina Najjar is directing the web series and Camille Salameh, who wrote the popular 80s and 90s sitcoms “Beit Khatleh” and “Niyel El Beit”, has written the script.
Movies, theatres, imported publications and TV content are all subject to the scrutiny of the security bureau. Anything that could potentially be a threat to “national security, incite social hatred, jeopardize Lebanon’s relationship with friendly countries, corrupt moral values or degrade the position of the president of the republic,” is banned, according to Mounir Akiki, head of media relations at the General Security’s General Directorate. Akiki noted that the supervision is done in accordance with two laws, one 18 years old and the other more than a half a century old.
Other laws and decrees in this regard, according to a study authored by human rights lawyers Nizar Saghieh, Rana Saghieh and Nayla Geagea, allow General Security “the right to fully reject or partially approve the staging of a play without directives or guidelines,” from 1977 or a law from 1953 that does not allow political newspapers to be granted a license unless they were granted one before the law was enacted or buy one from an existing publication.
Luckly for Mamnou3! they will not have to adhere to these dictates, as Akiki noted in a statement sent to Executive that websites are still not covered by any legislation. Ayman Mhanna, executive director of the Samir Kassir foundation, points to the subjective nature of what constitutes a contravention of the law as standard by which the council interprets what is and what is not suitable for the public. “The red lines are religion, the president of the republic, the army and incest; yes incest as a father might want to sleep with his daughter after watching an incest scene,” mocks Mhanna. “They don’t say it but Syria also [is a red line]” he adds. Akiki declined to provide more information to Executive as he did not have prior approval from his superiors.
Another problem cited by Mhanna is that General Security requests opinion of religious groups and political parties whenever it feels that they could be upset by the content and “usually they follow blindly whatever comes from them,” says Mhanna.
And it does not stop here. Filming in downtown Beirut requires pre approval by Solidere, something General Security endowed the private firm with the authority to do. The same can apply to “other official and non-official authorities such as the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces, district governors and other political organizations and private companies,” according to the lawyers’ study.
Raising their voice
It is precisely this environment that inspired Mammou3!. According to Lahoud, he got the idea of launching the series at a seminar hosted by the Samir Kassir Foundation on censorship in Lebanon in January this year, when the whole room burst out with laughter every time the reason for the ban of a movie was mentioned. “I started to imagine the process through which these ridiculous decisions are reached; the comedy was there in front of us; we didn’t have to exaggerate much,” he says.
Mhanna mentions a series of movies that were either banned or had scenes removed, including the Da Vinci Code movie, banned because “it degrades Christianity”, or “The One Man Village” (Semaan bil Daiy’a) which had segments cut because “people spoke of their war memories”. A series of movies alluding to Judaism, which is not illegal in Lebanon, are also banned such as “You don’t mess with the Zohan” as there is “a mix in people’s minds between Judaism and Israel” adds Mhanna.
An advisory board, created three years ago by former interior minister Ziad Baroud, assists General Security in the decision making process but “the real decision makers are the big shots in politics, religion and security” adds Mhanna.
“General Security not only strives to preserve the positive image of state institutions but also actively promotes it, by often taking into consideration the interests of powerful political figures at the expense of creative freedom,” according to the legal study. “This has frequently led to the suspension in production of documentaries, especially those that hold leaders accountable for their role in the Civil War.”
The advisory board to General Security is made up of representatives of various ministries (interior, social affairs, education, information and culture) and their mandate is to recommend whether a permit should be granted or not. The former chairman of the national news agency, Andre Kassass, heads the board.
Lahoud is hoping that this first series of MAMNOU3! will not be the last if it resonates well with the public. While making revenues is not a first priority, he is “open to opportunities”. For now, the aim is to have fun while raising awareness on the comical decision making process of the censorship bureau. “No one really trusts the Lebanese State with even the most basic of its responsibilities,” says Lahoud. “How can we trust it to decide what we are allowed to watch?”