“Wonder Woman,” the latest addition to DC’s blockbuster superhero universe, was scheduled to be released in Lebanon on May 31. The day of it was meant to open, the movie’s theatrical run was abruptly halted by the announcement that Lebanon’s interior ministry had banned the film because actor Gal Gadot (aka Wonder Woman) is an Israeli citizen.
This wasn’t a complete surprise: Lebanon and Israel have been in an official state of war for decades; Lebanese law boycotts Israeli products, and bars Lebanese citizens from traveling to Israel or having contacts with its citizens.
And it has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. “The Attack,” Ziad Doueiri’s 2012 adaptation of Yasmina Khadra’s novel, was ultimately denied screening permission in Lebanon because the Lebanese-born filmmaker had shot the film in Israel and Palestine with an Israeli cast and crew. But unlike “The Attack,” “Wonder Woman” has nothing to do with Israel.
Lebanon is not the only Arab state officially at war with Israel, but it is the only one to ban Gadot’s film. (After the measure was announced, “Wonder Woman” was released on schedule in Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait and is scheduled to open in Oman and Bahrain later this month.)
Lebanon’s ban, and the way it was carried out, in part reflects the workings of the state censor. Lebanon is distinct in the Arab world in that, historically, its political parties have sometimes been more robust than the state, which has made the operation of the state censor unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the region.
When vetting films, stage plays and print media, the rulings of Lebanon’s censor often hinge on preventing artists from offending the sensibilities of the polity’s various interest groups. In practice, the censorship committee has been particularly sensitive to depictions of religion and sexuality — no surprise in a sectarian polity — as well as Israel. In this, the Beirut Cinema Days Arabic film festival, staged in March, provides a convenient case in point.
The censor denied screening permits for two programmed films: One was the Egyptian feature “Mawlana” (Preacher), by veteran writer-director Magdy Ahmed Aly. The film follows the story of a witty young preacher whose rising popularity and influence attracts the attention of the state, which tries to influence his positions on certain issues.
The denial of the permit was surprising, since “Mawlana” had had a theatrical release in Egypt, where its box office returns were among the strongest since the 2011 revolution. It seems the censor had required certain cuts, which the festival was loathe to make. Ahmed Aly’s film has since had a theatrical release in Beirut, after someone made the cuts demanded by national censors.
The other title denied screening permission was “The Beach House,” the feature film debut of Lebanese artist Roy Dib. It tells the story of a late-night dinner party in which two sisters play host to an old friend and his male companion. Dib’s script is dialogue-heavy and the revelation that the two male characters are lovers is an exercise in cinematic discretion. “The Beach House” is yet to have a theatrical screening in Beirut.
The “Wonder Woman” ban happened because the censor heard from another interest group — the Lebanese chapter of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel. Speaking to AP on behalf of the CBSI, academic and activist Rania Masri said the boycott campaign is an expression of resistance to efforts to normalize relations with a state that is at war with Lebanon and occupies Palestinian land.
The CBSI’s intervention found Gadot’s online expressions of patriotism helpful for its cause.
A former Miss Israel who transitioned to modeling before acting, Gadot served her mandatory two-year military service. The media picked up on the actor’s Facebook posts praising the Israeli military’s 2014 operation in Gaza and sending prayers to soldiers “who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas.”
It’s likely Gadot’s enthusiasm for the Gaza operation (which the BBC estimates killed over 2,100 Palestinians, more than 1,400 of them civilians) made some impression upon state (and sub-state) actors resentful of the Israel army’s history of incursions here, routinized between 1979 and 2000 as a kilometers-deep South Lebanon occupation zone.
In the summer of 2006, Israel commenced a month-long bombing campaign of South Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs — where the forces of the militant political party Hezbollah had, and has, great influence. The 2006 war killed around 160 Israelis, mostly military personnel, and displaced about 500,000. Some 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and a million more displaced. Lebanon’s southern border has been largely peaceful since 2006, but tension between the two countries has grown since Hezbollah intervened in the civilian uprising against the Assad regime, prompting Israel’s air force to target Hezbollah forces operating in Syria.
Geopolitical issues aside, many Lebanese find the “Wonder Woman” ban absurd. Some who oppose the measure criticize it for being arbitrary, noting that other movies starring actors with Israeli affiliations — Scarlett Johansson’s vocal support for Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, for instance, which are otherwise deemed to be violations of international law — escape the censor’s notice.
Gadot herself appeared in several Hollywood movies before “Wonder Woman,” including four “Fast and Furious” movies and “Batman vs. Superman.” All these titles were released in Beirut, though the Lebanon chapter of CBSI did try to secure a ban of “Batman vs. Superman.”
The present interior ministry ban was somewhat unusual insofar as the country’s censor had granted the film screening permission. This cleared the way for exhibitors to launch an (ultimately pointless) ad campaign for the film, increasing the ban’s financial burden upon exhibitors.
Spokesmen from Circuit Empire and Grand Cinemas (two of the country’s major exhibitors) have released separate statements saying the ban discriminates against them.
“They are not harming anyone by banning [“Wonder Woman”] … except the distributor,” the film’s Lebanon distributor told Reuters. “They are making the movie theaters lose, the employees, the Lebanese economy … What did they get out of this?” Local tastes don’t ape those of American moviegoers – it’s hard to know how many Lebanese would be lured to the unusually strong feminine hero praised by some western critics, for instance – but Beirut audiences have plenty of reason to indulge in escapist cinema. Hollywood blockbusters are reliable stock-in-trade here; while official numbers were not available, local exhibitors have confirmed that a sizable number of “Wonder Woman” tickets were sold in advance of the ban.
There is some precedent for works to be exhibited after the censor’s injunction, including the 2007 instance in which Rabih Mroue’s play “How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke” was briefly banned after the playwright refused to submit to the censor.
In this instance, an active and well-connected minister of culture intervened to overturn the ban — which may have been facilitated by Mroue’s growing international profile, and his practice of never staging his work in Beirut more than a handful of times. Indeed, between (pirated and legal) DVDs and streaming services — which state agencies may monitor but do not interrupt — any Lebanese who wants to watch “Wonder Woman” will be able to do so. The Middle East thrives on hyperbole. The political narratives surrounding Arab relations with the state of Israel are as nuanced as any 3D tale of super heroism and super-villainy.
There is, however, little in the way of mindless escape — and so far, “Wonder Woman” won’t get the chance to change.
Jim Quilty writes about the film, visual and performing arts in the Middle East.