* Government censor bans two films from Beirut festival
* Bans target homosexuality, temporary "pleasure marriages"
* Taboos on sex, religion, politics irk local artists
By Stephen Kalin
BEIRUT, Oct 7 Lebanon has banned the screening
of a film about homosexuality and another on short-term
"pleasure marriages" practised in some Muslim communities, in a
blow to its reputation as a bastion of tolerance in a deeply
The films, which had been due to be shown at the Beirut
International Film Festival that opened last week, were blocked
by a government censorship committee, festival organisers said.
Confirming the bans, an Interior Ministry spokesman cited a
Lebanese news report which attributed the decision to "obscene
scenes of kissing between gay men, philandering, naked men and
sexual intercourse between men" in one film and "sex scenes that
offend public opinion and obscene language" in the other.
Critics took to local media and the Internet over the
weekend to denounce the bans but festival director Colette
Naufal said they could only be overturned by the interior
minister, a move she considered highly unlikely.
Naufal said the decision represented a step backwards for
Lebanon after several years when the festival had been permitted
to show controversial films, including one about paedophilia.
"Lebanon has one thing that stands out: its freedom of
expression, freedom of thought, freedom of everything," she told
Reuters. "That's the difference between Lebanon and the whole of
the Middle East."
One of the banned films is "L'Inconnu du Lac" (Stranger by
the Lake) from French director Alain Guiraudie, which deals with
a homosexual relationship between two men. It was screened this
year at Cannes Film Festival.
Homosexuals face discrimination and alienation in Lebanon
and have been prosecuted for years under a law forbidding "acts
against nature", which judges often interpret as criminalising
sex between men.
However, Beirut is also home to a large gay community and a
gay tourism industry that includes bars and nightclubs.
Despite its relative liberalism by regional standards,
Lebanon has a history of banning films, plays and books that
touch on the taboo subjects of sex, religion and politics.
The second film is "I Offered You Pleasure," a 15-minute
short about temporary "pleasure marriages", so named because
they are often used to circumvent Islamic proscriptions on sex
outside of marriage, including prostitution.
Based on interviews with women from Lebanon, Iraq and
Bahrain, the film tells the story of a middle-aged Shi'ite
Muslim woman named Iman who is coerced into agreeing to a
"pleasure marriage" with her teenage neighbour, Wael.
Director Farah Shaer, 26, told Reuters the film tackles
issues of sexual discrimination and the oppression of social
traditions but does not contain any graphic sexual images. She
said she was surprised that it was banned.
"We all know about pleasure marriage contracts and about
premarital sex," she said. "So what if we talk about them in
films? Why should that be banned?"
While the film focuses on the Shi'ite community, to which
Shaer belongs, she said it is not intended to single out one
religious sect, noting that Sunni Muslims engage in a similar
practice and Christians in Lebanon often have premarital sex.
The film, which was Shaer's senior project at the Lebanese
American University, was screened in Lebanon in 2011 at another
university's film festival that falls outside the state's
censorship apparatus. It has also been shown at international
festivals including France's Clermont-Ferrand festival of short
films and the Bustan International Film Festival in South Korea.
Shaer said she thought the majority of Lebanese supported
showing the film but that she had received harsh letters of
reproval from critics.
"About a quarter of the people are standing with the ban
because they do believe that such taboo subjects shouldn't be
talked about, which in my opinion is really sick and really
insane," she said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)