BEIRUT -- During 16 years of civil war, the people of Lebanon enjoyed a cinema free-for-all. Fifty illegal television stations broadcast the latest pirated movies, uncut and uncensored, direct to homes across the country. Movie theaters ignored the nation's censorship laws, airing the latest films from Hollywood with the outlawed violence and steamy sex still intact. Now that peace has arrived, the General Security agency of the government is trying to restore the order and restraint envisioned by Lebanon's 1947 censorship law. But the office set up to deal with censorship is modeled on a pre-war agency that had little more to worry about than movie theaters. It is understaffed and ill-equipped to cope with technology that covers everything from cable and satellite television to the home video market. 'We do not have enough staff to make sure everyone abides by the law,' said Gen. Maha Homsi, who heads the censorship department. 'We do not even have all the necessary equipment to view or to subject to censorship all kinds of films.' Michel Nasr, a manager at one of Lebanon's biggest film distribution companies, Georges Haddad Sons and Co., said all imported movies are subjected to the close scrutiny of Homsi's department before being handed over to the distributors. But since the General Security's censorship department does not have the means to screen all films, distributors are asked to feature some movies on their own responsibility. 'We were forced to adopt a sort of auto-censorship system because we cannot afford having films prohibited by censorship if their often expensive rights are already paid,' said Nasr, whose firm owns more than 10 cinemas and has exclusive rights for Columbia-Tristar and 20th Century Fox.
Some 200 films are featured annually in cinemas across Lebanon. The rights can cost as much as $100,000 if they are at the top of the box office in the United States. Attendance at blockbuster movies has reached as high as 126,000 for the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner's action-romance movie 'Bodyguard.' Cinema tickets usually cost 10,000 Lebanese pounds ($6.25) which is relatively expensive for Lebanon. Part of the reason is power shortage. Frequent cuts mean movie theaters must have their own generators to maintain uninterrupted electrical supplies to show the films. more
Because of the high cost of theater tickets, many people wanting to see a movie turn to the home video market, where pirated films are available within days after they are originally screened. General Security has been able to do little to eliminate piracy or impose censorship on the video market. 'We know that the authorities are trying to do their best, but our films are rented at most video stores sometimes even before they are at the cinemas,' said Tony Chakra, whose company has exclusive rights for Warner Brothers and imports other moves from independent producers. Even video rental shops owners acknowledge that newly released films in the United States and Europe and movies that are prohibited by the law continue to be available -- even if under the counter -- at their stores. 'We rent those films with higher prices because the demand for those movies is high,' said a video store owner who refused to be identified. Another manager at a prominent video store said such movies continue to be rented 'because the law is not yet clear concerning video shops.' 'Such a law which regulates the movie business has become obsolete and should be revised because it dates back to 1947 when there were no video recorders, video films or laser video discs,' he said. Most companies in the movie business agree that censorship in Lebanon is obsolete and is applied with little consistency. Adult movies are illegal in Lebanon. But in reality they are found everywhere in the market. They are even available for teenagers. 'No one checks my identity card when I rent them,' said 16-year-old Ghassan, adding proudly, 'Anyway, I look older than my real age.' Sex and violence are removed from publicly screened movies by the censorship department, often with poor editing, but they can be fully seen by anyone with a video recorder. Paul Verhoeven's notorious fleshfest Showgirls, which features very few dressed actors amid an ocean of Las Vegas nude lap-dancers, open homosexuality and rape scenes, are available uncensored at Beirut video stores. On cinema screens, however, such nude or sex scenes are severely cut. 'Sometimes they ruin the movie. Like in (Robert Altman's) 'Pret-a- Porter,' where the last scene, and probably the director's only statement in the movie, that had nude models on a catwalk was completely removed,' said 30-year-old Leon. Gay, lesbian and incest displays are taboo subjects prohibited by the censorship department and are considered illegal in Lebanon. But movies which portray prohibited transvestites and transsexuals, such as last year's 'The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,' can also be found at video stores. Another major subject for censorship is the blacklist against Israel, which prohibits entry to Lebanon of any film that has a link with Israel, Jews and Zionism. 'This list is applied in Lebanon and all Arab countries,' said the head of thecensorship department. 'It cannot be discussed.' Films are prohibited if any of members of the cast are on the blacklist. Among those on the list are Chuck Norris, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Barbara Streisand and Sammy Davis Jr. Despite the ban, their films are broadcast in Lebanon. Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List,' which told the story of the Jewish holocaust during the Nazi regime in Germany, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'True Lies,' which portrayed Arabs as terrorists, were among the films that were banned in cinemas. But they were available on video. 'They also cannot fight technology,' said the owner of a video rental shop who sells antennas for satellite reception. Satellite reception allows many Lebanese to view films with no government restrictions and video shops to make clear copies of banned movies. While piracy and censorship continue to be controversial subjects in Lebanon, foreign film production companies are complaining of lax enforcement of laws protecting them from piracy. A delegation from the Motion Picture Association recently visited Lebanon and met with top officials in the country. The visit had one purpose: to ask the Lebanese authorities protect movie rights. There are many examples to justify such a request. Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction,' told a story of criminal life. It had a beginning, a middle and an end, but not in that order. Until seeing it again on videos in the original version, moviegoers did not notice that the movie was edited in Beirut and rearranged to have its incidents develop in chronological order. 'I wonder what Tarantino would think,' said movie buff Hala Beydoun, 'if he knew about this scandalous violation of his film.'
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NEWLN: Piracy circumvents Lebanon's film censorsNEWLN: United Press International
The issue: Since the end of Lebanon's 16-year civil war, authorities have revived the country's 1947 movie censorship law and begun cracking down on theaters. But despite their efforts, banned and uncensored films are widely available via video stores and satellite television, and authorities have done little to stop widespread piracy. The facts: --The General Security's censorship department prohibits films that do not respect moral values and religious beliefs or are on the blacklist of the Arab League's Arab Boycott of Israel Office. --The censorship department lacks financial means and adequate equipment to enforce a law seen by members of the movie business as obsolete since it was drafted nearly half a century ago. --Prohibited films and banned actors continue to be widely viewed on the country's numerous illegal television stations. Video stores continue to offer for rental ostensibly pirated films that are banned by law. --Some 200 movies are screened annually at Lebanon's cinemas with entries for blockbusters as high as 126,000 for Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner's 'Bodyguard.' Cinema tickets in Beirut cost about 10, 000 Lebanese pounds ($6.25).