In Lebanon, a futile fear of fashion and film

Lebanon’s cultural boycotts do little for the country except bring it global ridicule.

Director Steven Spielberg poses at the premiere of the HBO documentary film 'Spielberg' in Los Angeles, California, US. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Director Steven Spielberg poses at the premiere of the HBO documentary film 'Spielberg' in Los Angeles, California, US.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lebanon is at war with the State of Israel. It’s largely a cold war, certainly over the past few years, and while neither side is showing much interest in an escalation, both keep a wary eye on the border.
But overall, things are quiet.
Nevertheless, the Lebanese government considers itself at war with the Jewish state, often a war of words. And lately Beirut’s arsenal has been a series of increasingly nonsensical bans on Israeli or Israel- linked materials.
On Monday, the world learned that the Lebanese government recommended the banning of the just-released film The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg. Is it because Spielberg is Jewish? Well, yes – but more specifically because of his “associations with Israel.”
According to the Beirut- based Daily Star and The Hollywood Reporter, the ban was because of Spielberg’s 1994 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, a small portion of which was shot in Israel.
According to The Washington Post, the ban is because Spielberg gave a $1 million donation to a range of Israeli aid groups during its 2006 war with Lebanon.
The Post, ironically, is a film starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep about freedom of the press and government intervention.
Lebanon’s view on Israel and Israeli products doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Last year, the superhero flick Wonder Woman was banned because its star, Gal Gadot, is an Israeli who served in the IDF. For good measure, the government threw in a ban this week of the Australian film The Jungle starring Daniel Radcliffe, because it is based on the book and life story of an Israeli adventurer.
The ban has even enveloped Lebanese filmmakers, like director Ziad Doueiri. In September, he returned to Beirut after winning an award for his recent film The Insult. Upon landing he was detained by authorities who interrogated him – not about that film, but about his 2012 movie The Attack, which was, you guessed it, partially filmed in Israel.
“They held me at the airport for two-and-a-half hours. They released me after confiscating my French and Lebanese passports,” Doueiri told AFP at the time.
The Insult was just shortlisted for an Academy Award last month, but authorities would apparently rather police Doueiri’s every move than celebrate him as bringing pride to Lebanon.
And last week, even fashion came under fire – when Gadot donned an Elie Saab gown to accept a prize from the National Board of Review. Saab, a Lebanese designer, first posted a photo of Gadot on the fashion house’s Instagram feed calling the actress “flawless.” After complaints, however, the post was removed.
It is unclear if Gadot was trying to make a statement by wearing the gown, or had any idea she was even wearing a Saab. But the anger expressed at an Israeli embracing a Lebanese designer, a so-called member of the enemy state, was sad and self-defeating.
Those angry at Saab’s post, and thrilled with a boycott of The Post, are suffering from the same faulty logic driving the BDS movement. That group of activists, determined to stop musicians, comedians and anyone else from visiting the Jewish state, might get a win here and there – most recently with New Zealand singer Lorde’s concert cancellation. But does that win accomplish their goals?  Have the prime minister or the IDF or the police changed their behaviors or tactics because a concert was canceled? Does championing censorship over dialogue further any of these goals?
Lebanon’s ban last year of Gadot, and therefore the films Wonder Woman and Justice League, drew a fair amount of scoffing around the world. But its boycott this week of a Spielberg-linked project drew even louder derision. Spielberg, of course, is not an Israeli citizen, and never served in the IDF. And Spielberg films have been shown in Lebanon for decades, with barely a whiff of controversy. Could the government have more of a problem with this film’s message, and be hiding behind the more populist anger at Israel?
Even several Lebanese commentators noted that the move seemed draconian.
“You don’t like Steven Spielberg? [Then] compete with him instead of showing an authoritarian regressive face to the world,” said Joyce Karam, a Lebanese native and Washington-based reporter for the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper. “This is an American movie, a brilliant one for that matter, at a time when Lebanon can’t even produce a plan to deal with its own garbage. How shameful.”
Michael White, a national security analyst for CNN, wrote on Twitter that: “A country where ‘media’ outlets publish hit lists on special tribunal investigators doesn’t want to exhibit a film about groundbreaking investigative journalism because it’s directed by a man they don’t like. As ever, Lebanon’s got its priorities straight.”
As Lebanon continues to ban films its citizens can stream online or buy on black-market DVDs, it’s hard to imagine what the country gains from such moves. All it really seems to be accomplishing is becoming the subject of increased international scorn.