I believe in freedom of speech and the power of documentary film. If any film festival delayed or suppressed one of its entries due to political reasons, I would condemn such an action. So when a film festival gives in to pressure to “spare the feelings” of the president of Iran, I feel obliged to point out a couple reasons why such thoughtfulness is absurdly misplaced.
The Beirut International Film Festival canceled, or at least delayed, the screening of a docudrama—“Green Days”—that provides a close-up look at the protests and government brutality that accompanied Iran’s 2009 presidential election. In other words, the same election that proved a dubious confirmation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s power. Hana Makhmalbaf’s “Green Days” already aired at well-known film festivals in Toronto, Copenhagen, and Venice, where the film won “The Bravery Prize.” The reason the film has won this prize and others stems from its willingness to stand up to the Iranian government, even including amateur film of the public demonstrations during the elections.
Then President Ahmadinejad decided to visit Lebanon, and such a screening became inconvenient. According to the festival’s director, censorship authorities pressured the festival to postpone its screening. Such a move represents the sort of kindness and personal touch one seldom sees these days. How thoughtful of the Lebanese government: Ahmadinejad decides to take two precious days out of his busy schedule of oppression in Iran for a visit; the least Lebanon could do would be to censor anything that might trouble such a devoted, hardworking leader.
After all, Ahmadinejad always demonstrates such respect during his visits. Consider his last trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September. While visiting that city, he accused the United States of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. Perhaps this was the fault of my hometown for not doing a better job of paving the way for his visit—maybe “Green Days” or another film was airing, and this upset Ahmadinejad to the degree that he felt justified in so insulting his host city.
Lebanon learned that lesson and realized it had to smooth the way for Ahmadinejad’s visit. Makhmalbaf’s film would trouble the Iranian president and perhaps even remind him of his government’s brutality as it beat and murdered protestors during the election and its aftermath. Lebanon’s move to make Ahmadinejad more at home was noted by the filmmaker in an open letter she wrote on her family’s website (her father is also a famous Iranian filmmaker), addressed to the “Cinema Lovers of Lebanon”: “Ahmadinejad in my land is the symbol of censorship. Look how he brings censorship to your country before even arriving there.”
Establishing Iranian-style censorship must have ingratiated the Lebanese government to Iran, right? Depends on which government you mean. In Lebanon, there is the government, and then there is Hezbollah. The militant group—considered by many states a terrorist group—received Ahmadinejad with much fanfare, and the Iranian president met with its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, at the end of his visit. Hezbollah is part of a unity government that seems to have tenuous control of Lebanon, and based on Ahmadinejad’s visit, you would assume Hezbollah was the only recognized group.
On a geopolitical level, Ahmadinejad’s meet-and-greets with Hezbollah officials are not surprising. It is well known that Iran functions as the group’s major backer, and Ahmadinejad has obvious ambitions to exercise increasing control over regional, and specifically Lebanese, politics. Iran would love to see Lebanon become even more closely bound and entrenched as a pro-Iran, anti-Israel regional player. It’s no coincidence that Iran has similar ambitions in Iraq—where Iran has reportedly schemed a pro-Iran coalition government that will be much less friendly to the United States.
What is disturbing, however, is that the coalition government—not just Hezbollah—decided it couldn’t show an already scheduled screening of “Green Days” as Ahmadinejad visited. This might be waving the white flag; it might simply be one instance of over-sensitivity. But it’s a remarkable one given that the visitor is Ahmadinejad and that many have understood his visit as a clear provocation against the unity government.
Perhaps Iran just operates in an alternate reality where every state should be nice to it and then graciously accept its punishment for doing so. That’s the only explanation for halting such a legitimate film screening in order to be considerate to a world leader coming to insult you.
In Iran, if you rob a candy shop, you get your hand cut off. In Lebanon, Ahmadinejad is sticking his hand in a cookie jar he has no right to touch—and the Lebanese government cuts off its own hand.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.