Neighbors / Cinema All-too-verite

Censors in Lebanon fear a new film exploring the deep and still-present wounds of the civil war could reignite tensions. But suppression is no substitute for justice, the filmmaker says.

On December 9, 1980, in the midst of Lebanon's civil war, the father, mother, little sister and 10 other relatives of De Gualle Eid were killed. The cruel murder took place with the 10-year-old boy watching and Eid saw the face of the murderer, indelibly printed in his heart.

His name was Khaled Diab, a senior member of the Syrian national party in Lebanon and its representative in the Abdil region in northern Lebanon where the massacre took place.

lebanon - AP - July 6 2011

In 1990, Eid immigrated to France to study cinema at Aix en Provence and began directing his own films. Over the years, he dreamed of making a documentary about his family tragedy and finally this year, he realized the dream in the form of the Arabic-language film "What happened?" which he directed together with the Palestinian filmmaker Rashid Masharawi, and which follows the events of that day.

While filming one of the scenes, the murderer Diab crossed Eid's path. Eid keeps his cool and asks Diab: "Do you remember me?"

Diab, of course, does not recognize in the 40-year-old man the boy who had been 10 at the time of the massacre. "You murdered my mother," Eid tells him.

Memories of the civil war are a very touchy issue in Lebanon. Even more sensitive than the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri or the condemnation of members of Hezbollah in that murder.

The memories are potent enough that many fear dredging them up could restart the civil war. So it is suppressed.

Following the civil war, the Lebanese government decided to grant widespread amnesty to anyone who committed crimes at the time. That was a sensible decision for a country that had just undergone a historic trauma which shook its very foundations.

But a process of recovery did not follow; there were no truth and reconciliation committees like those set up in South Africa at the end of apartheid; there were no films that would air out the memories and very few novels were written about the period.

It is no wonder then that Eid's film was considered an explosive addition, which could reawaken the simmering memories.

When he tried to present it at a Lebanese film festival last year, he was twice rejected by the Lebanese censor. The argument was that the film pointed an accusing finger directly at a certain person and political group and that this could lead to disturbances.

This June, Eid once again wanted to present the film, this time as part of the Forbidden Films Festival - a unique Lebanese event where a select audience is allowed to see films that were banned from being screened at the Beirut Film Festival.

But in this framework too the censor forbade the screening, for the same reasons.

The censor informed the festival's producer, Colette Nofal, that the film could be screened only on condition that a number of scenes were cut and he threatened her that, if it were screened without permission, she would have to pay a heavy fine and be imprisoned for a month.

Eid refused to cut the scenes. "If I cut those scenes," he said in a newspaper interview, "I will be collaborating with the general amnesty. Why does the Lebanese people not have the right to hold a trial about the civil war, just as is done when leaders are murdered?"

It is not merely the memories of the civil war spooking Lebanon's leadership. The film "Green Days" by the Iranian director Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of filmmaker Mokhsan Makhmalbaf, about Iranian protests after the disputed 2009 elections, was banned from screening in Lebanon at the request of the Iranian ambassador to that country.

He made it clear to the Lebanese government that "showing the film will be considered an affront to Lebanese sovereignty" and the matter ended with that. Lebanon does not want, and cannot allow itself, at least at this stage, to risk its ties with Tehran, certainly not over a film.

Films are a national danger, the important Turkish publicist Burak Bekdil wrote in the Hurriyet daily last week. Bekdil was referring not to Lebanese documentaries but to the latest film in the series "Valley of the Wolves: Palestine" which his theaters in January this year, a mere day after International Holocaust Memorial Day.

In the film, actor Polat Alemdar portrays a hero who goes to Israel to capture the Israeli commander over the raid of the Mavi Marmara ship, which led the flotilla to Gaza last year.

Two million Turks have already seen the film, grossing it some $10 million. "Can anyone guess how unlikely (or likely ) it is that one of the young viewers of the film, applauding Alemdar and cursing the 'blood-thirsty Israelis,' will become Turkey's prime minister in 20 or so years?" Bekdil asks. "How soon until a Turkish theater spectator draws out a pistol and shoots the 'fiddler on the roof?'"

He takes pains to remind his readers of the list of Israeli performances that were canceled in Turkey owing to threats by extremists.

The danger to long-range relations between Israel and Turkey does not lie in the flotillas to Gaza or the stunt of getting the Turkish ambassador to Israel to sit on a low chair, Bekdil states, "The risk is about the systematic injection of Islamist sentiments about Israel into the minds of younger, ordinary Turks, especially in the past two and a half years."