'Exodus: Gods and Kings'.
(photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
On December 27, Morocco’s film commission banned the new biblical film Exodus: Gods and Kings. It sent a letter to cinemas saying that the movie, which tells the story of Moses, portrayed God in one scene and was therefore unacceptable to the sensibilities of the public, which is mostly Muslim, and its conservative regime, which eschews the portrayal of God as a form of idol worship. Not everyone in Morocco was pleased. The Progressive Social Party condemned the move, arguing “There should have been a more intelligent handing of the affair in a way that didn’t damage the image of the kingdom and preserves the freedom of creation and art.” An organization of filmmakers led by Abderrahman Tazi said the act was “ridiculous,” and “risks discouraging film investment in our country.”
The ban comes on the heels of similar censorship in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Ironically, Morocco’s film commission head Sarim Fassi-Fihri claimed that “we are not like Egypt or the Emirates, who say the history in the film is distorted. We respect the film for what it is, fiction....
The problem is the appearance of God in the film.”
According to press reports, Egyptian censors disliked the film due to “intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization.” There were claims that “Zionist fingerprints” could be seen in the film and that it portrayed Egyptians as “savages.”
The Emirates censors took a keen look at it and deemed it insulting to religion. Juma Obeid al Le’em, the director of the Orwellian-sounding Media Content Tracking at the National Media Council, claimed that “this movie is under our review and we found that there are many mistakes not only about Islam but other religions too. So we will not release it in the UAE.”
Many other movies have been banned in these countries.
The 2014 film Noah was also deemed too controversial to be shown by several Arab countries. It reminds us of the pressure put on Sony over the film The Interview that caused its release to be initially canceled and then much reduced in scale. Not only the Islamic world has suffered under the shackles of censorship. When The Last Temptation of Christ, which is based on the 1953 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, was released in 1988, it was banned in Turkey, Mexico, Chile, the Philippines and Singapore. Large US theater chains canceled showings, just as they did with The Interview.
However, in 2014, what has changed is that the US president and major newspapers have stood up for freedom of expression and commentators such as Ross Douthat noted what is common to these incidents “is a belief that the most important power is the power to silence, and that the perfect community is one in which nothing uncongenial to your own worldview is ever tweeted, stated, supported or screened.”
Movies tend to strike a nerve in totalitarian regimes. Iran expressed outrage over the 2012 film Argo that depicts the rescue of Americans during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
An Iranian newspaper claimed that the film 300 represented a “declaration of war” by Hollywood on the Islamic Republic. For some countries, from Morocco to Iran, a work of fiction can be a threat.The thesis that censorship can prevent the public from seeing anything deemed offensive is increasingly impossible to maintain in a world of social media and peer-to-peer sharing, so many people in the Middle East are being exposed to these films, despite ham-handed government pressure. But the symbolic pressure of censorship of film often extends beyond the arts.
HarperCollins Publishing has admitted to producing atlases for sale in the Middle East without Israel listed on maps, in deference to “local preferences.” The firm later said that it “regrets the omission of the name Israel” and will pulp the merchandise.
In March 2014, it was revealed Etihad Airways did not show Israel on in flight maps.
The movies are just the tip of the iceberg. Censorship might begin with a film, but it can end with hiding all offensive things from the public – such as the existence of certain countries – or with barring Jewish pilgrimage, as was done recently in Egypt. Banning movies feeds extremist ideology.
We must speak out resolutely in favor of a world of freedom of access to films, which may be criticized but not banned. In today’s world, countries can no longer hide from every idea they dislike. It is time for an exodus from censorship.