Cut! Biblical epics, raunchy films rile Arab censors in 2014

A year of bans on Biblical epics and raunchy Lebanese dramas concluded with what some call an increase in censorship in the Middle East

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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This year saw a raft of movies banned from many Arab countries, with Biblically-inspired epics and raunchy Lebanese films facing the most mount of flack.

“Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” which both depict biblical events - with a heavy dose of creative license thrown in, according to some Christians - were given little time by some Arab governments.

The first of the two to be released, “Noah” first received a ban from Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, due to religious grounds.

Noah 1233
Noah 1233

Then days later, Egypt’s al-Azhar University – the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam – declared that the film was prohibited under Islamic law, due in part to its “personal characterization” of its titular lead.

Magda Khairallah, an Egypt-based film critic, said that stopping the release of any movie is an obsolete move.

“It’s not reasonable because people will reach the films on the internet,” she said.

This month, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” a retelling of Biblical character Moses leading the Jews out the clutches of an evil pharaoh faced a similar treatment in Egypt.


This time, it was banned on grounds that “it gives a Zionist view of history and contains historical inaccuracies and that’s why we have decided to ban it,” Culture Minister Gaber Asfour said. The film was also banned in the UAE and Morocco for similar reasons.

Tina Richardson, an academic and media commentator, said that the censorship of both movies “should not be a surprise.”

“Is the censorship of recent Hollywood films greater than it has been in the past? It's hard to tell… but what is clear is that the subjects of the films that have suffered the most in the hands of censors this year are subjects that lend themselves to careful scrutiny in the Muslim world,” Richardson said.

“Biblical stories equate with Christian stories and that's going to gain the censors' attention; as a result they are likely to be more heavily censored,” she added.

Yet Biblical epics were not the only movie genre to be face bans.

In April, “Halawet Rooh” - a drama starring sultry Lebanese diva Haifa Webhe - was pulled from cinemas after its release by the orders of Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab after an outcry over its explicit content.


The pulling of the movie marked “the first time the prime minister of Egypt stopped a movie while rolling in the cinemas. It’s ridiculous,” said Khairallah.

Egyptian columnist and top art critic Tarek al-Shenawy said that much of the current censorship in Egypt started during the era of Islamist former President Mohammad Mursi in 2012.

“There is definitely an increase in censorship,” he told Al Arabiya News. That is due to the fact that the government is trying to present a certain image. That is clear, as the prime minister once interfered, and so did al-Azhar. [Although] we have now gotten rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is still a conservative culture [remaining].”

However, Arab governments may not hold sole responsibility for censorship and bans.

Released to much of the Arab world in early 2014, many scenes from the UAE release of famed director Martin Scorsese’s white-collar crime drama The Wolf of Wall Street - which featured Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio playing a drug-addled financial conman – was reportedly heavily cut by the cautious distributor, not the censor.

wolf wall street
wolf wall street

After many in the UAE called the heavily-chopped down version of the film in cinemas “incomprehensible,” and “unrecognizable,” an official from the country’s censorship body told a local daily that they were not responsible.

“We didn’t touch the film,” Juma Obaid al-Leem, an official from the National Media Council told local daily Gulf News in January. “The distributor already made the cut [when it came to us]. When we asked the distributors, they said they cut all those scenes and words, because they want to distribute the film in GCC.”

Mufaddal Fakhruddin, an editor at the Middle Eastern branch of popular U.S.-based entertainment site IGN said that authorities in the Middle East ban and censor films due to fear.

“The key ingredient to all the censorship is fear. Fear of inciting the public by showing religious figures portrayed by actors in films. Fear of offending the conservatives in the region by showing sex and nudity,” he said.

“Fear is what is informing all censorship decisions and as long as that fear exists censorship will continue to exist.”

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