Waltz with who?

Observations on censorship

Mohammed, a young Lebanese journalist, trudges through the pirate DVD stores of Sabra refugee camp in Southern Beirut with just one goal. "Have you got that Israeli film, Waltz with Bashir?" he asks. He's not in luck: of films currently in cinemas, the store only supplies the box office top ten. Despite its Oscar nomination, Ari Folman's animation about the 1982 massacre that took place inside this very camp is no match for Bride Wars. A stallholder offered to make copies, for about $1.30 each, if Mohammed brought him the DVD.

If he had the DVD, Mohammed would be assured of a tidy profit. Like all Israeli cinema, Waltz with Bashir is banned in Lebanon, but appetite for the film, which follows the attempts of former IDF soldiers to recall traumas experienced during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s, is immense. "Have you got a copy?" asks a Shia friend, whose family home was destroyed by Israeli bombs in 2006, when I mention I am writing an article about it. "If they have it in Sabra, will you get me one?"

Lebanon and Israel have a bloodily forged common history. Following the 1982 invasion, wave after wave of young Israeli conscripts like Folman were sent to fight in Lebanon's civil war, and they continued to occupy the south of the country until 2000. Israel was allied to the Christian militias, who slaughtered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under the supervision of the IDF. The same landscapes, beautifully evoked in this film, haunt both Israelis and Lebanese: tanks rolling through banana plantations in the south; empty, shell-blasted highways in Beirut. Even those who have suffered at the hands of the Israeli "enemy" are curious about the film. "It's always interesting to see what's going on on the other side," explains Serge, as he sets off to a pirate DVD merchant in the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs where he thinks he might find the the film. "Is what we call a massacre, a massacre to them?"

One copy of the film that has found its way into the country is in the possession of archivists Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim, who invited 30 friends for a private viewing. When word got out, an extra 60 people showed up. "It was an eye-opener." says Ra'ed, one of their friends. "In the Arab world we focus on the big picture - Israel as an entity - and this film was focused on individual memory, trying to remember one single image. I felt it was honest, and simple."

But one audience member, Mahmoud, a Palestinian who was 12 at the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, says he had mixed feelings on the film. "It's objective, it's a good piece of documentation and it's an important film. But it's a luxury to have a trauma; what about the trauma of the victim? They should have said they didn't want to go. Every soldier can refuse."

Rationale for the ban on Israeli films is hazy, even in the mouths of its enforcers. "If a film makes bad ideas about the Arabs, it is banned," says an official from the Cinema Office of the Directorate of General Security, before switching to another explanation that "everything from Israel is banned because everybody believes Israel is the enemy".

"Understanding the other side doesn't mean excusing or justifying," says Monika, shaking her head. "Anyway, if the Lebanese want to get an Israeli perspective they can already read Ha'aretz online, or see Israeli politicians on al-Jazeera. Why ban films?" Even the information minister, Tarek Mitri, has called the ban on Waltz with Bashir absurd, pointing out that it can be downloaded from the internet.

The ban on Israeli films takes place within a wider climate of censorship. Although Lebanon is relatively liberal when it comes to freedom of speech, the wounds from its 15-year civil war are still raw, and anything to do with the past, politics or religion has the potential to be provocative, often leading to self-censorship as well as outright bans. In addition to being curious about the Israeli point of view, people are keen to see Waltz with Bashir precisely because subjects such as the Sabra and Shatila massacres are still taboo in public discourse. The censors allowed Monika and Lokman's own documentary on the subject, Massacre, only one screening.

"Personally, I am jealous," says Lokman. "Jealous that it is the 'enemies' who are making the effort to approach the issues that are weighing down on all of us."

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling