Over the past couple years, the Lebanese government’s censorship bureau has banned (and unbanned) an increasing number of films slated for a local release because they possess what the bureau perceives is content that directly jeopardises national safety and century-old, traditional mindsets. From Annabelle: Creation to The Post to Maroun Baghdadi and Danielle Arbid’s filmographies, not to mention the vehement avoidance that attends to any film that tackles religion or politics (let’s not even get into LGBTQ+ cinema), Lebanon’s history of banning films casts a bleak shadow on the future of artistic expression and the freedoms within it.
The most recent victim of this is filmmaker Rana Eid, whose poetic, cinematic essay, Panoptic, was banned from screening as part of the Beirut Cinema Screenings at Metropolis Cinema this past weekend. The deeply personal feature looks at infrastructure that makes up Lebanon’s malaise history and identity, including notorious penal practices for which the film was purportedly banned.
In response to the ban, Eid put up her film on Vimeo temporarily for the masses to watch. It’s a bold move on her part as a filmmaker, and one not many in the director’s place would dare to make. Her decision was met with overwhelmingly positive reception, as hundreds rushed to share the video before it expired, condemning the government’s censorship and commending Eid on her rebellious act.
And if that doesn’t speak volumes of the state our country is in, then perhaps Panoptic itself does. From the mistreatment of migrant workers in the Lebanese penal system to the looming past of some of the city’s architecture, the film delves into themes of surveillance, allegiance to and admiration for the military, war, the hidden personal histories of the director inside the city’s infrastructure, and her relationship with her late father, a General. As a final product, Eid’s engulfing sonic journey of a film in part critiques Lebanon through the spaces its inhabitants occupy and have occupied, and it does so valiantly.
But instead of embracing the film for what it highlights of our flaws and how subtly and intricately it does so, a decision was made to ban the film from being shown in its own country.
I’ve always believed that cinema is meant to give voice to new kinds of realities of what we see around us everyday, that it offers a medium for filmmakers to criticise themselves and the places and people they’re in contact with to better rationalise the world around them. So, if we, as a country, are to make any progress — and there’s a lot of it to be made, contrary to what our government officials might think — it starts with allowing these forms of expression to revisit our histories and criticise our practices, old and new. How are we to progress if we cannot handle the simple idea that we are, in many ways, imperfect? How are we to progress if any trace of our imperfections is erased and banned, discarded as trash, and not allowed the opportunity to see the light of day in the place that needs it most? How are we to progress if we are not given the opportunity to critically reflect on ourselves and our state of existence?
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We are not. Instead, we are uniformly pushed aside, making way for the production of content that propagates, sustains, and reinforces the same agenda we’ve seen for decades, one that serves only those who’ve amassed enough power to control it; instead, we remain uninformed and intellectually unchallenged because we are deemed too critically unfit to discern between ideologies we perceive and others we adopt, lest these ideologies somehow veer from the national, political, social, and religious consensus.
The screening of Panoptic was supposed to happen in the presence of the directors of the six leading international film festivals, including Cannes and Locarno, the latter of which screened Panoptic as part of its line-up. I find myself deeply saddened by the fact that international audiences will get to enjoy and appreciate our stories, however tumultuous, and we will not, that these directors made the trip to Lebanon only to miss the chance to talk about the film in and of itself and its impact outside its film reel with the people most concerned with it, that we missed the chance to share our own stories with them and with one another.
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To ban a film (or any form of art) in this age and time is a violation to the freedoms of both those banned from seeing the film and those who implement the ban. Whether it’s a local production or a big-studio blockbuster, we shouldn’t hide from that which leaves us uncertain or unsettled. Let us have conversations about things that make us uncomfortable and talk about why we feel such discomfort; let us embrace our differences and not stand idle to practices that confine us into manufactured singularities; let us make movies, paint portraits, and fashion songs and books that make manifest the challenges and conflicts that make up our cities, bring up our historical wounds, and look at different ways to heal; let us tell our own stories and share them. We have far more important conversations to have than those about the vices of censorship.