Danielle Arbid: “In Lebanon, people think they are living on a volcano.”
Blasted by the censors in her home country, Beirut Hotel, the third feature-length film from Franco-Lebanese director Danielle Arbid, is nevertheless scheduled for broadcast on our channel on January 20! Initially, the ARTE co-production was to be given a cinema release in Lebanon on January 19th. Herewith the tale of a chaotic production in a chaotic country, and an interview with Danielle Arbid, who discusses the prevailing climate in Lebanon, her battles, and her disillusionment.
In late December, the new film from director Danielle Arbid was banned from release in Lebanon by the Censorship and General Security Committee, part of the country’s internal security services. The tale of a passionate love affair between a Lebanese singer and a French lawyer contains explicit sex scenes liable to shock certain communities in the Lebanon.
The movie was banned, however, for completely different reasons. According to the commission, the intrigue of the film “creates a problem with regard to the assassination of Rafic Hariri” (the former Prime minister killed on 14 February 2005). It rules that the issue, raised in the film by a lawyer who is suspected of espionage, “should be avoided until the inquiry into the assassination of the former Prime minister is complete.”
Censorship is a recurring theme in Lebanon. Internationally acclaimed films, such as Pulp Fiction, Waltz With Bachir and Persepolis, have already met with the authorities’ disapproval for political reasons.
To make her film suitable for release, the director would have to agree to cut any scenes referring to this political event. For Danielle Arbid this was out of the question. Most of her films have already been subjected to censorship. She has contested the decision in court, intending to create a judiciary precedent, and rejected the option of getting around the censors by showing the film on the Internet.
For ARTE, Danielle Arbid reveals the pitfalls of a filming on Lebanese soil and explains why Beirut still has a way to go before it can regard itself as part of the “the revolutions of the Arab world.”
What were their reasons for banning your film and how did you defend yourself?
They were angry that I did not shoot the version I had presented to them. In Lebanon, getting a theatrical release for a movie is a complex business. To shoot a fictional film, you need filming permission from the General Security Committee, linked to the Lebanese Interior Ministry. Before giving their approval, they demand to read a completed script. I never hand over a final draft because it is constantly evolving, I often change it along the way before filming begins. Afterwards, when the film is released, they produce the original script you delivered and say: “But this isn’t what you’ve put in the film!” There are two censorships, in fact: one at the script stage and another after the actual filming.
I decided to file a complaint, demanding that they prove how my film is a threat to the security of Lebanon, and that I said anything that hasn’t already appeared in the press. We are going to win because on top of everything else, their censorship committee is illegal. Nowhere in law does it say that the State must read scripts before giving approval for filming. They say, “She has filmed things that she hid from us, things that are not in the script.” I reply, “Your censorship committee is illegal, I didn’t even have to show you my script.”
I had the same problem with my first two feature films. For the first, they wanted to cut it. I refused. There were long negotiations before they finally agreed to give it an 18 certificate and not cut it. And then for the second, they wanted to cut whole sequences and I refused that too. No film deserves to be cut, not even the worst ones. It is up to the author to decide where it should be cut and why, not the censors. Before Beirut Hotel could be released in Lebanon, they wanted me to cut all the sections referring to the spy story in the movie. I immersed myself in the reality of modern-day Lebanon because I thought that the things I was reading in the newspapers two years ago at the time of writing really lent themselves to fiction. As dramatic material, it’s rather interesting. But I specifically did not name any political parties, nor campaign for anyone, nor insult anyone. It is not a blasphemous film.
Then there really are problems of freedom of expression…
Yes, on top of that people think that Lebanon is an open country. I myself think that it is, but in fact they have a really pernicious, nasty system. Even when you hand over your script, they summon you twenty times before giving approval, and you have to show your credentials, prove your innocence. You have to show as an artist that you are not going to produce anything subversive. It’s almost as if they’re asking you to make a propaganda film. They do everything in their power to make you feel in the wrong, whereas you just want to create something. So it’s one thing to take pride in your artists, but a country ought to support them, give them funding. In Lebanon, there is not a single euro available to make films. I’m fed up of it, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s the third film and I could not get it through. Nobody has ever tried to file a complaint before. I did, on the principle of “enough is enough!”
What are the Lebanese afraid of? As the films starts, you have Zoha say: “Everybody here is afraid.” The people are afraid, and it seems the leaders are too. What’s going on?
Everyone in Lebanon is afraid, and everyone has always been afraid.Lebanon is like a sieve, a house of cards, as we went through a civil war but afterwards didn’t manage to build a solid state. We are still dependent upon what happens in Syria, in Israel, upon a possible war on the South-Lebanon border. War could break out there at any time.
Combine that with huge internal problems related to disparities, inequalities, the growing gap between rich and poor, the actual constitution of Lebanon, which is written in a fairly convoluted way, given that it takes into account Christians, Muslims, Shiites, Sunnis and Druze. And each of these communities shares part of the power. If one group becomes larger than the others, it demands a greater share of the power, which the others contest. It’s a kind of running problem.
I have friends who are constantly scared of tomorrow, rich and poor alike. At the same time there’s this fatalistic, risky side, because risk is something we’re used to. When you lived through fifteen years of war you get used to living with it. And it’s a vicious circle, because you get used to liking it. That feeling you’re living on a volcano that could erupt at any moment.
The censors, however, are scared of something else entirely: creation. Artists’ creativity. It’s the same all over the world. But in Lebanon, they’re even more virulent, because it’s a country on the frontier between the East and the West, which makes our lifestyle fairly western. On the one hand it’s an ultra-liberal country where money plays a big part, on the other there is no real state aid for anybody. It’s very difficult to find your way in Lebanon, it’s a complicated country.
Where does Lebanon stand in the context of the Arab revolutions? How do the Lebanese see all those events?
They’re a little perplexed if I might put it like that, because the Lebanese don’t know what they’re fighting against. There’s not just one person to blame, there are so many. And there are so many corrupt politicians. Power is shared between people who don’t even agree amongst themselves, so it’s difficult. In Egypt or Tunisia, they had one person to depose, at least symbolically. There’s an internet site that carries the billing: “Against all the Lebanese dictators” and it’s true, they are legion: former militiamen during the war who have mostly become ministers and who now each represent their community, each playing on the other’s fear.
The day they ban these ministers from appearing on television and insulting each other and creating hatred between the communities is the day I’d accept being banned. The state is serving no purpose other than to stir up hatred. There is no state, Lebanon is like a sieve, its borders are open, anyone can come and go. That creates a state of paranoia, as I try to point out in my film. To me, Beirut is a paranoid city. You can’t even predict the end of the day here. People here live with that sense of inevitability.
Haven’t the revolutions in the Arab World offered hope?
The Lebanese are pretty optimistic, they’re used to facing all kinds of difficulties. But they’re very scared of repercussions from the situation in Syria, a country that’s closely linked to Lebanon, whether the regime falls or remains. The big question is, how interconnected are Syria and Lebanon?
What is your definition of democracy?
My definition of democracy is freedom, total freedom! I may be fairly utopian, but I believe we are supposed to be free to make our choices, to do, to create, to address a public which either accepts and likes what you’re saying or doesn’t. And then, for any problems, we should be accountable to the law, not to censors. We live in a society which is supposed to be overseen by something called the justice system. I firmly believe in that system, even if it’s not always perfect. I’m not saying it’s perfect in France, far from it, but there is a minimum insurance. Whereas in Lebanon, the strong can win and the weak can pipe down, and that can go on for years.
Interview: Sabine Lange and Laure Siegel
© Picture : Palmira Escobar
Trailer of “Beirut Hotel” :
« Beyrouth Hôtel » original soundtrack
Danielle Arbid was born in Beirut (Lebanon) on April 26 1970. Aged seventeen she left Beirut for Paris, where she studied literature and worked as a freelance journalist for various newspapers. For the last ten years, she has been directing films. She began with a short film, “Raddem”, and followed it with others, one of which was the documentary “Après la guerre” (60′) for an ARTE Theme Evening. “In the battlefields”, her first feature-length movie, was selected by the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2004. Her other films, notably “Seule avec la guerre”, “Aux frontières” and “Conversation de salon” were very warmly received and won several awards, including the Video Golden Leopard at the Locarno Festival.
Danielle Arbid began her first feature-length fiction film, “Linas”, before releasing “In the battlefields” (Maarek Hob) in 2004, then in 2007 “A lost man”, her second fiction feature. “Beirut Hotel” is her latest long-form fiction, coproduced by ARTE.
Article in Now Libanon: Banning Beirut, again
“Beirut Hotel” on the Films Pelléas website
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