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

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.