BEIRUT, Lebanon — “Spotlight,” the true-life tale of a newspaper’s quest to expose systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church, walked away with the Academy Award for best picture this weekend. But the movie will not be showing in Lebanese theaters any time soon due to what activists have described as self-censorship on the part of the industry here.
When a major film doesn’t appear in theaters in Lebanon, it’s usually because the country’s General Security Directorate — a government body whose activities range from border control to film licensing — has censored or banned it.
It doesn’t take a lot to make it onto that list. A number of films are banned for what General Security describes as “sympathy for Jews” (“Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist”), “homosexuality” (“Milk,” “My Summer of Love”), and a not insignificant number for starring Jane Fonda (all of the more than 40 films she appeared in) — the latter because the actress visited Israeli troops during their invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
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But “Spotlight” was not banned in Lebanon — it didn’t even get that far. According to MARCH, a group that campaigns against censorship, film distributors in Lebanon told them it wouldn't be worth showing the movie because of the controversy it would cause, and because the topic of child abuse by Catholic priests would be too sensitive to make it past the censors.
“Technically, the distributors performed an act of self-censorship,” said Farah Wahab, a project coordinator at the group, which campaigns against censorship in Lebanon. According to Wahab, “they decided not to present it to General Security.”
“They told us it was for two reasons: the first was that they thought Lebanese audiences wouldn’t go to watch it, and also because they thought General Security would ban it. All of this because the movie talks about priests.”
Bassem Eid, head of programming at a movie theater chain in Lebanon, said the potential furor the film might cause could hurt sales at the box office.
“A film like ‘Spotlight’ will cause some controversy in my opinion,” he told local station MTV. “The movie won't make enough money in the box office. It might cover expenses.”
Lebanon is a country in which religion holds powerful sway over politics. The parliamentary system is based on confessionalism, with power divided proportionally among the country’s many religious sects. The effects of a 15-year civil war fought largely along sectarian lines are still present today.
Often, a request to ban a film will come from one of the country’s major religious bodies, such as the Catholic Information Center or the Muslim Dar al-Fatwa. In most other countries, the Catholic Church may object to “The Da Vinci Code” — a movie centered on a conspiracy within the Vatican — and that will be the end of it. Here, the influence of religious groups is such that their protests can lead to a movie being banned from theaters.
The other problem, according to MARCH, is that the laws that assign General Security the responsibility for censoring films are archaic and vague.
“There is no criteria for what should be banned written down,” Wahab said. “The laws are very old. Some of them were written while Lebanon was in civil war.”
Those in Lebanon who want to watch the film aren’t likely to be too worried. The country’s flourishing pirated DVD industry makes discussions about censorship largely symbolic.