Friday, May 29, 2009

Help... Censorship

Remember that scene in the wonderful "Cinema Paradiso" (Oscar for best foreign movie, 1990) where the village priest, a one-hand censorship committee, sits all alone in the darkened movie theater to do his dirty deed while Philippe Noiret's Alfredo plays him the latest flick? The one-handed deed being, of course, that every time the screen flashes anything approaching the hint of a kiss or a flash of flesh, up goes the priest's hand in the hysterical sign--not of a cross, exactly, but close: of scissors. It's the prelate's unspoken signal to Alfredo in the projection room to cut the offending bit of celluloid (often a cousin of unpriestly cellulite) and cast it to the dust-devils of Alfredo's cutting-room floor. So it was in 1950s Giancarlo, the tiny southern Italian town of Giuseppe Tornatore's lip-smacking imagination.

And so it is still, it seems, in 21st century Lebanon, where something else deserves a smack.

"Help" is a Lebanese film by director Marc Abi-Rached. It's the mostly platonic triangular story of a delinquent teenager called Ali who lives in an abandoned van in a junkyard, who befriends a prostitute called Soraya, who rooms with her gay friend Janot. The themes are more daring than the scenes (for Lebanon, anyway, where befriending a junkie can provoke all sorts of suspicions).

So far so cool. Abi-Rached got permission to distribute his movie in July 2008 from the ominously called Lebanese General Security board, which serves as the country's film licensing authority. The board asked Abi-Rached to tone down one image that purportedly flashed something Eve Ensler would have a monologue about, and to restrict the movie to adults. Abi-Rached complied and got himself a license--license number 1460, to be precise. The movie was shown to reviewers on Feb. 12, who gave it pretty good reviews, and it was scheduled to open on Feb. 19. And why not? There's a good bit of cursing and frank discussions about homosexuality, but this is Beirut, after all, the Christopher Street of the Middle East. On Feb. 16, the license was pulled. What gave?

Lebanon's clerics--Maronite Christian, Catholic, Sunni, Druze, Shiite in all their sect-ual denominations--can be a powerful bunch (put them together and they could probably field a hell of a team on soccer's senior circuit, if it existed). They control the film board, ensuring against immorality. But Lebanon isn't Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. It's not even Lebanon, if by recent re-definitions of Lebanon we mean what Hezbollah's turbaned Jansenists are doing to the country's relative liberalism: Hezbollah's influence would keep a movie like "Help" from playing in southern cities like Tyre or Sidon, but it couldn't keep it from playing in Beirut, Junieh or even Sunni Tripoli way up north. Besides, it's for movies like "Help" that the Arab world's hypocrites take their vacations in Lebanon. (They want their Beirut and eat it too.)

So what could have happened to the movie? It's Lebanon, therefore it's conspiracy time. The religious element is obvious, but too obvious. Too convenient. The homosexual element may be a bit more convincing. Lebanon isn't Iowa, after all (or Vermont or Massachusetts or California). It's more like the sort of place where Antonin Scalia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could still feel comfortable--where homosexual acts are illegal.

So maybe that's what did it. Lebanon's moviemakers, from Nadine Labaki ("Caramel") to the emerging great Philipe Aractingi ("Bosta," "Under the Bombs") and the fitfully fabulous Ziad Doueiri ("West Beyrouth," "Lila dit ├ža") are an undiscovered country of force and wonders. But they tread on themes close to Lebanon's broken heart. In "Help," Marc Abi-Rached tries the Star Trek approach--going where no Lebanese moviemaker has gone before. Gay theme, full monty. A dare too far?

My theory is this: it has nothing to do with the gay theme, nothing to do with the cursing (the occasional Brooklyn Likudist aside, no one curses better than a Lebanese) or the glimpses of nudity. No. It's about Joanna Andraos. She's one of the stars of the movie. She's also the daughter of Antoine Andraos. Antoine Andraos is a member of Lebanon's Parliament. Not only that. He's a member or the ruling March 14 Alliance. He's running for reelection in June's parliamentary bash. And he, like the rest of the March 14 Alliance that represents Lebanon's alleged "Cedar Revolution" (and western outlook) is in a fight for the coalition's life as Hezbollah's coalition appears poised to make big gains, and perhaps demolish the March 14 coalition.

Antoine Andraos doesn't want to lose. He doesn't want his daughter's movie thrown up in his face every time he delivers a speech. If you know Lebanese families, if you know Lebanese fathers, you probably know the kind of anguished, top-of-the-lung screaming match that may have taken place in the Andraos living room. Spacious as it is, as all Lebanese living rooms are, it wouldn't have been spacious enough to contain the decibels of Father Andraos shouting his despair at his daughter's transformation into a prostitute, however fictional the transformation.

So Andraos did what any self-respecting despotic Lebanese father would do. He pulled strings. He had "Help"'s license revoked. End of story. That, anyway, is my theory. I doubt it's the end of the story, though now, for all my sympathies for the venal and corrupt and ineffectual March 14 coalition (for all its venality, the alternative is worse), I'm kind of rooting for Antoine Andraos to lose. If that's how he treats his daughter's freedom of expression.

By the way, at the end of "Cinema Paradiso" Toto got a special treat from Alfredo, from beyond the grave: all the scenes that had ever been cut (enough to make you fall in love with life all over again). There's hope yet, Marc Abi-Rached. You're the winner here, not the censors. I can't wait to see your movie, uncut and unturbaned.