This article on the censorship practices in Jordan on film and television by the state-funded Media Commission was originally published by 7iber on 17 February 2016, who have kindly allowed Freemuse to republish it here:
Banned: Film and television censorship in Jordan
By Reem Al-Masri, design by Hussam D’ana
Translated by Rawad Wehbe and Orion Wilcox
In the country from which the film Theeb was shortlisted for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film 2015, a portion of Jordan’s resources continues to be dedicated to a system for censoring films and television shows viewed by Jordanians.
In the Media Commission headquarters, an employee in the Classifications Division sits in a small office filled with stacks of yet to be released films. Headphones in ears, the employee sits at his desk viewing a feature film. Not only is watching movies during his shift acceptable, it is actually the employee’s job. He, along with his five coworkers in the audiovisual department, is responsible for viewing and approving all imported films to be circulated in Jordan.
The employee likes his job but complains from the pressure caused by the large number of films—both those intended for movie theaters and those that will head directly to movie rental stores—that he and his colleagues have to give approval to release from customs.
The audiovisual department officers are aware of how unrealistic it is to control what Jordanians watch in their homes—especially with the spread of the internet. However, according to one employee, “there’s a difference between watching a movie in your home with family and friends, and making it open to the public.” An officer sitting in a different room added, “imagine taking your son to the movie theatre only to find that the film contains sexual content inappropriate for his age. Would you be happy?”
The Commission ensures that films do not violate the standards set in place by the Audiovisual Licensing and Censorship Rating System. These standards stipulate that material that “does not insult His Majesty the King or the royal family or slander any of the Abrahamic faiths. Furthermore, material must not include content that provokes civil strife, promotes racism or sectarianism or that could destabilize the security and safety of the country. Finally, the film must not contain material that flares sexual content, encourages pornography, violence, crime, deviance, or offenses against the public order.”
The employee mentions that one of his last requests was to remove the sex scenes from The Hateful Eight in order to permit its screening in theatres. In Fast and Furious 7, the deleted scene is when actor Vin Diesel mentions that a millionaire Jordanian prince invited them to a party in his luxury apartment in Etihad Towers, where he keeps a magnificent “eye-watering” car. The opening scene in American Sniper did not reach the big screen in Jordan because the call to prayer could be heard in the introduction before American tanks begin to enter Baghdad’s streets—reason enough to insult religious sensibility, according to Rasmi Mahasneh, the classifications division’s director in the Media Commission.
For the most part, Commission employees have discretion to decide which films are banned for offenses ranging from “impinging on national security” to “flaring sexual desires.”
“In censorship there are no specific guidelines for rating a film,” says Mahasneh. “Your rating for a film in the morning might change by that evening.” But the director goes on to explain some standards for banning films. “I am not ashamed to ban a film that insults any Arab country or religion such as Islam or Christianity. The same goes for films that glorify Zionists—sympathizing with their cause and falsely portraying the Palestinian cause—even if they are Arab films.”
Sometimes the Commission consults external parties before approving or banning a film. Mahasneh points out, for example, an Italian film that depicted the Virgin Mary during pregnancy. “We consulted the Church Council as a reference authority and then banned it on the basis that they considered it an offensive misrepresentation of the Christian faith.”
“The good thing about the censor’s work is that it does not risk the movie’s story,” says Khalid Shaheen, the manager of Grand Cinemas. “If removing a particular scene would affect the plot, or the idea behind the story, then we prefer not to screen the movie entirely.” For that reason, Shaheen preferred banning Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s film By the Sea over removing the sexual scenes as they were important to the film’s plot. The Danish Girl, a British film nominated for multiple Oscar and BAFTA awards, and holder of several international awards, was also banned because the plot revolves around the first transgender person in Denmark in the 1930s.
“We keep all the kisses but remove all the sex scenes,” says Shaheen. He did not recall any examples when a film was banned or cut for political reasons. However, “if the films treat any political figures or past presidents—such as Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein—we cut these scenes, or the Commission does.”
Both Noah and Exodus were banned for religious reasons, according to Shaheen. “A film that depicts any of the prophets is forbidden and will not be screened. It won’t be screened in any Arab country other than Lebanon. The distributors themselves won’t even ship it because they know it will be banned.” Mahasneh confirms this, saying that “the Commission will not certify a film that conflicts with what the General Fatwa Department already issued, such as prohibiting all footage that depicts any of the prophets.”
In addition to approving and banning films, the Commission employee also determines whether or not the film’s rating and age restriction in Europe is appropriate for the same age in Jordan. “Of course, we do not rely on the same ratings that come with the film,” says Mahasneh. “My society is different from Lebanese society and different from that of Saudi Arabia. What is perhaps appropriate for European or American society might not be appropriate for the conservative Jordanian society.” Until the Commission puts in place a new film rating system, the Commission employees’ discretion will determine which ratings are issued.
But censorship does not begin with the Media Commission, says Shaheen. Rather, film distributors in the Middle Eastern delete any scenes they believe the censor will prohibit prior to distribution. The film Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, arrived from the distributors twenty five minutes shorter than the original cut, after the sex scenes were removed. “If you saw it yourself, you would agree that removing these parts was not overkill,” says Shaheen.
While the Commission is able to cut select footage from films screened in theatres, films rented in stores must either be approved or banned in full.
Sami al-Nazer, owner of a video rental store in Sweifieh, prefers his copies complete and uncut, just as the director intended. “This is the director’s right as well as the customer’s.” His first choice is always to obtain a complete European copy as the quality of the films declines after the re-editing and the re-copying done by distributors in the Arab region. Films intended for the widescreen have different sound and image quality.
According to al-Nazer, the Commission does not have a database that provides a record of the movies and television series it has banned in the past. Additionally, the Commission does not generally issue official written bans, making it even more difficult to keep track of which films are and are not allowed. Quite often, the Commission will be strict with a new shipment of previously approved material. This is what happened with the television series Sex and the City and Game of Thrones which were initially approved only to be banned later.
Al-Nazer believes that rental stores are responsible for renting out films to customers who meet the age restriction determined by the Commission, which may differ from the original rating issued with the film.
It is possible to obtain lower quality copies of television series and films from the many pirated movie stores around Amman. Owners of these stores are aware that they are breaking the intellectual property law.
The Media Commission is responsible for licensing these stores and for apprehending offenders in cooperation with the National Library. Commission employees have the same authority as police officers and conduct visits to these stores to issue fines and confiscate material before turning store owners over to the judiciary to reach a financial settlement, says Mahasneh.
However, there are legal loopholes that allow the court to issue a verdict to reopen these stores after they have been closed. Mahasneh confirms that the laws and regulations regarding such violations are currently under review.
The owner of one pirated video store, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was careful not to sell movies banned by the Commission, saying that he makes routine visits to the Commission to learn what films have been banned. “I have no desire for my store to become a place where misinformation and historical lies are spread.”
The Commission tries to stay up to date on changes in how movies reach Jordanians. With the announcement that Netflix, a company that specializes in streaming movies and television series online, will make a portion of its contents accessible in Jordan, the Commission is studying ways to regulate these kinds of services.
Mahasneh says that if the service is offered completely online, like buying a book from Amazon, then the Commission will not interfere with its regulation. However, if it is delivered in agreement with a Jordanian company, then the Commission would have to step in.
Organizing a public film screening
In addition to approving films that arrive from abroad based on content, the Commission also grants licenses to venues to organize public film screenings.
Al-Balad Theatre (2002) and Makan: Art Space (2004) were among the first venues to provide alternative spaces for screening cinematic productions, far away from commercial and government owned theatres and large cultural institutions.
Anyone following the events calendar in Amman would have noticed a considerable increase in the number of alternative spaces and organized film screenings from 2011 to 2014. However, the spring of public film screenings was short lived. The Media Commission took notice of the unlicensed theatres that were organizing such events, and put a stop to film screening programs in spaces like Jadal, Makan, and Al-Balad Theatre. Among the projects embraced by these spaces was a collaboration between the Arab Film Archive Initiative, run by Ahmad Ameen, and Makan: Art Space. The initiative hosted a series of film screenings aimed at analyzing the development of Egyptian Cinema from the thirties through the eighties. However, the Commission prohibited the continuation of the series because the space they were using was unlicensed.
Early this year, Al-Balad Theatre planned to screen a documentary titled, The Council, in the presence of Jordanian director Yahya al-Abdallah. However, the theatre had to cancel the event after being notified by the Media Commission that the screening was illegal. “The censorship laws that are now being thrown in our faces don’t mention that cultural institutions are required to present their films to the censor” says Raed Asfour, director of Al-Balad Theatre. “What it does mention is that those laws apply only to commercial theatres that pay the censor out of their own pockets in order to have their movies seen.”
Ahmad Ameen, founder of the Arab Film Archive Initiative, adds that “you either organize your screenings in authorized spaces, or all of the archived Arab films that you have collected—and earned the right to screen—will simply stay on the shelf.”
Since their inception, the Royal Film Commission (RFC) and the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation have been among the institutions that have enriched the cultural scene in Amman by consistently organizing and successfully coordinating international screenings and film festivals.
During the summer, the outside theatre at the RFC never seems to empty of audiences viewing the institution’s film screenings. Nada Doumani, media consultant for the RFC, feels a sense of gratitude for the confidence that the Media Commission has in her institute. The RFC is not required to obtain a screening license nor is it necessary to obtain permission for any of their screenings.
For Doumani, the most important thing is to ensure that the parties responsible for organizing the public screening have screening rights and that the directors and producers are given their rights as well, something her institute ensures.
Rasmi Mahasneh says that the Royal Film Commission’s laws are separate and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Media Commission.
The Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, the first organization to organize public film screenings back in 1989, also does not need to obtain approval from the Commission for any of its film screenings, according to the president of the Cinema Department, Adnan Madanat.
“The Media Commission has never interfered with our screenings on the basis that they are non-commercial. The Media Commission had nothing to do with licensing the screening room. However, we did cooperate with the civil defense to guarantee the safety of the venue,” says Madanat. The regulations of the Media Commission does not require screening organizers to obtain rights from the producers or distributors of the film, but they do require that the screening takes place in a venue licensed by the Commission. While the process begins and ends with the Media Commission, one of the conditions for receiving a “profession license” from the municipality that requires the space to meet public safety standards.
“I don’t grant licenses to venues that are at risk of collapse or will disturb residents,” says Mahasneh. “When we issue a license to a commercial theatre, it takes time because it needs to pass through more than one party: the municipality, the civil defense, the Ministry of Interior, and the governorate.” Of course, if a non-commercial party wanted to obtain a movie theatre license, then it must first be registered as a cultural institute, says Mahasneh. “Or else that would allow just about anyone to publicly screen a film.”
All parties that currently hold film screening licenses are commercial movie theatres. “Until now, not a single institution that had its screening shut down has requested a license to become a screening venue or a permit to screen a film,” says Mahasneh.
Raed Asfour, the director of Al-Balad Theatre, is embarrassed that in the year 2016 such a censorship system still exists in a country like Jordan. He sees that the life of an art work, whether film, play, or dance, should depend on the audience’s acceptance of the work, or their refusal of it. “This is the relationship between artistic production and the audience.”
Mahasneh mentions multiple times that he considers himself a film critic before the Classifications director in the Commission. He says that movie censorship is “a civilized assessment of the cinema that takes into account the [Commission’s] social responsibility toward the people. The Jordanian citizen is conscious and aware. We are not far from the freedoms in the world. And for that reason, our ceiling is high.”
» Graphic and photo courtesy of 7iber