Speak No Israel

At Beirut's Docudays international film festival, movies may be screened only if all references to Israel are omitted.

Fawning Lebanese reviewers neglected to mention two aspects of Micha Peled's film "China Blue": that the director was born in Israel and that the film premiered here. Had organizers of Beirut's Docudays international documentary film festival, which closed on Sunday, published this information, they would not have been permitted to screen the film, despite the fact that Peled is an American citizen.

Officially, censorship of anything Israeli - be it an interview with an Israeli politician or journalist, or a story about Jewish Israeli families - is still very much in effect in Lebanon. But absurdly, Lebanese television may freely broadcast interviews with Israelis so long as their origin is not stated. Likewise, Israeli films are screened and Israeli books are critiqued, but their connection to Israel is not mentioned.

Mohamed Hashem, the graphic designer who founded "Docudays" in 1999, offered an example of this peculiar state of affairs. In an interview with the Lebanese Daily Star, he said he filed a request in 1999 to screen a documentary on pollution of Mediterranean ports. Because the film mentioned the port of Haifa, and because every publicly screened film must pass the Lebanese censor, Hashem was summoned to the censorship office. He was told the film was forbidden because it mentions Israel - even though the film is actually anti-Israel.

Hashem decided to screen it anyway. During the screening, he stopped the film to inform viewers that certain segments had been censored, and fast-forwarded through the "offensive" shots. Viewers watched Haifa flash before their eyes. The next day, the censor apologized and said he was not responsible for setting the laws. Yet it is difficult to fault the Lebanese censor when Egypt, which signed a peace agreement with Israel, also bans Israeli films.

In any case, the documentary genre is expanding and gaining steam in Arab nations - it can support its own festivals and is studied at universities. Thus, more than 600 films from 30 nations were initially considered for the Beirut festival this year. Only 10 percent were included.

This is the first year no student films were shown at the festival. Hashem explains that problems arise when students present documentaries at festivals - it makes them consider themselves professionals and they feel they have nothing left to learn, which harms their future work. But the real reason no student films were screened is that they failed to draw acclaim or crowds at previous festivals.

On the other hand, and despite the dearth of documentary films produced and directed by Arabs, the current festival reinforces the status of a few prominent directors in this genre. One of these is Palestinian director Mai Masri, whose film "Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Video" was featured at the festival. The film examines the drama that unfolded in the streets of Beirut after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. With significant documentaries including "Wild Flowers: Women of South Lebanon" (1986), "Children of Shatila" (1998) and "In the Shadows of the City" (2000) under her belt, Masri and her husband, Jean Chamoun, are part of the movement to present an unbiased documentation of the new Lebanon. This ambition becomes very difficult when penetrating the festering world of Lebanese politics. Furthermore, the ambition relies on an important assumption: that Lebanon is currently undergoing political processes that enable it to absorb "neutral" films, and that such films may now be screened for a broad audience at public festivals. This assumption says more about the Lebanese public than it does about the filmmakers.

Another example of unbiased documentation is "Maid for Sale," by Lebanese director Dima al-Jundi. This film, about Sri Lankan foreign workers in Lebanon, appears apolitical at first glance. But the portrayal of a class that can afford to hire Sri Lankan maids for $100 a week exposes all of Lebanese society. Al-Jundi strives to keep her film untainted: Not all the foreign maids are miserable, and not all their employers are exploitative. The film is interesting in its portrayal of Lebanon as a nation that absorbs - rather than provides - foreign workers.

Al-Jundi is known better for distributing films than for directing them, but this film will put her name on the ever-expanding list of documentary directors, a list led mainly by women. Among them is the Egyptian director Tahani Rashid, who began her documentary career in 1973. Rashid presented "These Girls" at the Docudays festival. The film, which depicts the life of Cairo street girls, drew predictable waves of criticism from those who claim the director defamed Egypt.

The festival closed with the screening of "Leila Khaled, Hijacker," a 2005 film by Palestinian-Swedish first-time director Lina Makboul. This film, which was screened at another Arab film festival in Doha, Qatar, will apparently not be the director's last. Makboul told an interviewer that when she was a young girl in occupied Nablus, she admired Leila Khaled, but now she has questions regarding what was depicted as an act of courage. These questions may produce another interesting film.