Lebanese film spurs debate over censorship

It features a sultry prostitute, a homeless teenager and a flamboyant homosexual, the makings of a movie sure to stir the emotions of Arabs torn between the teachings of austere clerics and a popular culture steeped in promiscuity.

But it never got the chance: Government censors banned the Lebanese film “Help” as too smutty just days before its scheduled opening in mid-February.

Since the ban, critics and intellectuals have demanded that decades-old censorship laws be scrapped in a country where flocks of Arabs from the oil-rich Persian Gulf visit for rampant sexual tourism and youths openly pursue Western lifestyles.

In Lebanon, a censoring body of security officers influenced by the Muslim and Christian clergies continues to review all plays and films before they are shown, cutting all scenes that might “offend public morals.”


Although the contentious sex scenes in “Help” are far from explicit, the film features a threesome of a woman and two men. That may explain the controversy: Homosexual acts are illegal in Lebanon.

“I didn’t want to make an aesthetic postcard movie about Lebanon,” said Marc Abi Rached, the 33-year-old director. “Do they really think we live in a platonic society? My ideas are all inspired from Lebanon. They want to give a false, impeccable image of Lebanon.”

The film tells the story of Ali, a homeless Muslim adolescent who sleeps in an abandoned van. His life is turned upside down when he meets Soraya, a call girl who shares an apartment with Janot, a young homosexual, and is hiding from Jacques, a Lebanese mobster who is trying to kill her.

The movie received all the required permits for its shooting and public screening after the makers agreed to blur a scene showing female genitals and restrict the movie to viewers 18 and older.


But just before its premiere, censors decided to revoke its license without explanation.

A local civil liberties group suggested that the movie was banned under pressure from religious groups.

“Decisions to ban movies are often made randomly according to moral, religious or political standards,” said Carmen Abou Jaoude, assistant director at the Beirut-based Skeyes, the Center for Defending Media and Cultural Freedoms.

The film has also stirred political controversy. Soraya, the prostitute, is played by Joanna Andraus, the daughter of a Lebanese politician who is running in the contentious June parliamentary elections.


The last suggestion made by the film’s team was to raise the viewers’ age to at least 21 without compromising on the controversial sex scene. The decision on whether to lift the ban is in the hands of the interior minister.

“We are still pursuing the battle,” Abi Rached said. “We will not give up.”


Rafei is a special correspondent.