The Censor’s Scissors

 Egypt Today sheds light on how the censorship process really works By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, February 2010)

In a conservative society, with prohibitions that come from deeply held beliefs, honest attempts to discuss social problems can sometimes offend. Last month’s controversial hit film Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya (With Natural Colors) addresses one such important source of tension in society: The relationship in society between religion and art.

The movie approached the issue of drawing live models and the conflicts between the religious and liberal students at an art school. When art students criticized the movie, claiming it defamed them, Osama Fawzy, the film’s director, said that he was using art to show the larger struggle in society between religion and the arts.

“They always talk about the three taboos: politics, sex and religion, but I believe that a taboo is what violates social harmony,” says Said Khattab, who was appointed the director of the Censorship Authority in October 2009.

The film and its ensuing controversy once again raise the question: Should certain types of art be prohibited?

To Cut or Not to Cut

Censorship has varied over time as societal norms have changed. For example, many of the stories that criticized President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not directly refer to him; some stories that were critical of Nasser were only released after his death.

When Yusuf Idris published the short story Akan Labod Ya Lily An Todi’y El Nour (Did You Really Have To Turn On The Lights, Lily?) in his 1971 collection Beit Min Lahm (House of Flesh), the book was banned. The story was well-known to be a criticism of Nasser’s policies concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially when he started negotiating with the Israelis to give back the Palestinians some of their lost land in exchange for recognizing Israel. The book was later allowed on the market.

In Idris’ story, a young sheikh is put in charge of a small mosque in an area known for drug dealing and addicts. All the men in the neighborhood are in love with a young girl named Lily — all except for the sheikh. Lily tries to seduce him while he is calling the people to prayer over a microphone. He fears he is falling in love with her and when he weeps, all the drug addicts awaken and go to pray, while he leaves the people behind, having finally fallen for her.

Naguib Mahfouz wrote short stories criticizing Nasser as well, including Taht El Mazala (Under The Umbrella, 1969) and Beit Saye’e El Soma’a (House Of The Notorious, 1965). In Awlad Haretna (Children of Our Alley), Mahfouz tackled sensitive religious issues, and the book was eventually banned because the characters personified God and his prophets. It is also said to be part of the reason an Islamist extremist attempted to kill Mahfouz in October 1994 by stabbing him in the neck. The assailant later confessed he had not actually read the book, he had only heard about what the book implies through its characters. Islamist groups say they had nothing to do with the attack.

According to Mostafa Faramawy, head of procurement for El-Shorouk Bookstores, there are two forms of censorship for books. Foreign titles go through the Department of Censorship of Publications under the Ministry of Information, but local titles are not subject to this process.

“Books in Egypt are given a deposit number from Dar El-Kotob, and then they are available at bookstores,” says Faramawy. “Books are almost never banned before being available at bookstores. They are sold, then when controversies arise, the books get banned until [the government decides what to do about them].”

If a book is banned, authorities collect the books from the stores.

Faramawy also says that the government requires that all copies of the Qur’an be approved by Al-Azhar. “We sometimes get the Holy Qur’an from Lebanon, so I make sure that all of the books we have are approved by Al-Azhar.”

Faramawy says that Egypt is somewhat flexible with books compared to the rest of the region. Some titles are allowed here that are outlawed in some of the Gulf countries, for instance. “We usually do not have a lot of books banned, but the government told us not to sell books by the Moroccan author Mohamed Shoukry,” he says. “But really, I do not believe that any books should be censored because we should know our thoughts and the others’ thoughts. If a person has decided to read a book, then he or she is aware of what is written in it. There are even people who do not have enough money to live and still manage to buy books, so we should respect that and give people the freedom to read whatever they want.”

The Censoring Process

From the controversial movie "Bel Alwan El Tabi'ya"

According to Khattab, television and radio have their own censorship departments, while music, movies and plays are under the main Censorship Authority. “Most series are shot at the Media Production City, which is considered a free zone, and those that are aired on satellite channels or Nilesat — outlets over which we have no authority.,” says Khattab. “We only get the scripts of a very few of them that need permission to be exported, but they follow our law, which is law 430 for 1955.”

For movies, the scriptwriter first files his or her script with the censor, who gives permission to start filming. The production company must get permission to screen the final film after the censors approve its content. If the Censorship Authority bans the film, it cannot be shown in local theaters or on the free-to-air channels.

“Every movie is seen by three censors and the director of the department, and if it is a controversial movie they form another committee. If part of the committee approves a movie and others do not, then I interfere and form another committee and get other censors from other committees,” says Khattab. “When there is a movie with a huge probability it will be disapproved, we summon the filmmaker and sit down with him and discuss the issues to find solutions [so the movie can be approved].”

For plays, the manuscript must first be filed, then the censors are invited to see the play on its first night. Musicians must file a song’s lyrics, before they get approval to record and sell it.

The Struggle to Be Seen

Films have been going through different forms of censorship ever since cinema came to Egypt. Movies represent the time they were made in. During the 1950s, many films were about the rise of the peasants and removing the king, whose image (on a photo in the background, for example) was blacked out. In the 1970s, most films were shallow, marking the period of aflam moqawalat (contractor films) — low-budget productions focused on quantity over quality, often with lots of sexual innuendos. Many were banned, but are still shown on satellite channels.

“The public morals change over time. In the 1970s, for example, women were able to wear whatever they want, ride buses and go to university wearing whatever they wanted, but now it is different. What you accept at times could be rejected at another time, and that’s what happens with the movies as well,” explains Khattab, adding that the level of tolerance for religious themes has changed. “[W]hat people used to accept before is rejected now in the society, and they do not want to accept it in what they are watching as well.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is to be a place where new ideas are born and have space to discuss and come up with new ideas and have the ability to diversify.”

Although the notion of censorship promoting creativity is dubious, Khattab insists that he is more liberal than his predecessors and wants to allow filmmakers greater freedom than they have had in the past.

While some criticize the Censorship Authority for approving movies that they feel are violating the morals of the society, filmmakers accuse the censorship bureau of being to strict. In 2003, for example, the Censorship Authority banned the movie Matrix Reloaded from screening in Egypt for religious reasons. There is no official explanation; some claim it is because the characters in the movie go to a city called Zion while others speculate that the Architect character was an attempt to personify god.

“Maybe the censorship is less conservative or let some scenes pass because they are important, but what is more dangerous to the arts than censorship is the audience, they are the real censors,” says Yosra Lozy, who starred in Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya. “Sometimes I feel that society is against the arts. They take photos with the celebrities when they see them, yet they attack their movies even before they are out in the theaters. There are also some lawyers and members of the People’s Assembly that file lawsuits against some realistic movies.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is

According to Khattab, the Censorship Authority is trying to implement a rating system similar to the type used in Europe or the United States, so that the viewer will be able to choose which movies he wants to see or show to his children.

“Our role is not to keep on cutting scenes from movies. We are a cultural institution, and I believe that with the rating system we are respecting the right of the viewer, ” says Khattab, trying to show concern over the damage that indiscriminate cutting can have on a film’s quality.

While controversial ideas are more likely to be discussed in film, directors must still be careful with how these topics are approached. “We could talk about anything — regardless if it will appear in a novel, movie, article or anything — the most important thing about it is to use the proper language for it,” says Marwan Hamed, director of 2006’s controversial movie Emaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building). “Part of the director’s skill is to know how to use the proper language from the cinema’s dictionary, and let it pass from the censorship and on to the viewer.”

Ibrahim El Batout, considered the father of independent cinema in Egypt and who made his feature debut with the award-winning Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2007), says, “Censorship is a rather out-of-date tool of control that has no efficiency nowadays. If it still exists in Egypt, it’s simply because we are out of tune with the whole universe and I see that sooner rather than later it will not be there.” According to Batout, all the technological developments that 2010 brings, especially in communication, will edge out any efforts to censor art.

Khattab says that in 2009 the censors allowed lots of controversial movies that tackle sensitive issues, like Awlad El-Am (Cousins, 2009), which deals with the Egyptian-Israeli struggle. While the censors say that they allowed a number of controversial movies this year, Khattab acknowledges that there are still movies prevented from being distributed such as Taht El-Niqab (Under the Veil), a movie about what women are sometimes forced to do under desperate economic conditions, and Haz West El-Balad (Downtown Belly Dancing), about sexual harassment. et

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