This week in 1937: Egypt’s censors ban their first film

Celebrating the diamond jubilee of its confiscation of the film “Lashin” on 17 March 1937, Egypt’s Board of Censors marked the occasion by banning Amir Ramses’ “Jews of Egypt,” one day before it was set to be released in movie theaters last week.

The 1937 “Lashin,” directed by Fritz Kramp, was accused of bringing “insinuations related to the Royal Highness and the regime.” The film, set in an undisclosed Arab kingdom in the 13th century, moves between the impoverished and suffering people on one end, and a lavish sultan in his palace on another; in between lies the popular army head, Lashin.

As the kingdom swings between famine, conspiracies and Mongol conquests on its borders, Lashin tries to alert the deluded sultan, but gets crossed by Prime Minister Kangiar who puts him in jail, sparking a massive public revolt that ends with the sultan’s murder.

Having no choice but to lose their film altogether, “Lashin” producers Studio Misr reshot another end sequence for the film. Here, the sultan magically uncovers the conspiracy and triumphs over his enemies, ending with revolting waves of people by his palace door chanting, “Long live the fair sultan.”

Luckily, Ramses decided to take on the fight — although "Jews of Egypt" was previously approved by the Board of Censors, "security authorities" were the ones who asked for its ban last week. After widespread media coverage of the ban last week, the censors and security authorities were pressured to go back on their decision, Ramses announced on Thursday. "Jews of Egypt" is now due to hit movie theaters next Wednesday. This is one triumph for artists and workers —  but the nation's history with censorship is more complicated.

Despite the many sociopolitical twists in Egypt since "Lashin's" ban in 1937, state censors have generally found less drastic measures than to completely ban a film. They may well have subtly understood the psychological link between forbidding and desire, or, more intuitively, that both the parental ruler and eternally juvenile public — between which the censors operate — are bound to change.

Accordingly, a film labeled as troublesome under one ruler could very well turn revolutionary under the next. Thus, the Cohen who was tolerated in cinemas in 1954’s “Hassan & Morcos & Cohen” is not necessarily tolerated in the 2012 production “Jews of Egypt.”

Film censorship in the Egyptian consciousness has become synonymous over the years with the word “scissors,” referring to the process of physically editing out a problematic scene from the film reel — a castration that renders a dangerous film into a safer, more gullible version. And while film editors delicately tune their cuts in order to maintain a sensible, emotional flow to a film, the censors’ work is often evident in interrupted soundtracks, jumps in the flow and blunt stabs to dramatic logic.

Compared with the other parental state arms, censors have always abided by a set of relatively loose principles. Constitutional terms like “protecting public order, morality and the higher interests of the state” were the perfect excuse for this body to flourish, expanding its scope of control to oblige screenplays to have its stamp of approval to get the right security permissions to produce them as films.

With a few exceptions, the Board of Censors has almost always acted against the filmmakers’ freedom of expression. It is so at times like the present, where all that could be possibly banned is a few clicks away, where the body of censorship feels the absurdity of keeping up the facade, and it can openly respond to Haitham al-Khamissi, producer of “Jews of Egypt,” that his film cannot be screened before being approved by a certain “security authority.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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