Top 10 Movies Banned in the Middle East

The power of film -- and why totalitarians fear it.

A year and a half ago, giddy and hopeful in the wake of Obama’s inauguration, an unofficial but self-important delegation from Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (including actresses Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, among others), set out for Iran as part of a “cultural exchange.”

Hard to fathom how America was supposed to benefit from the exchange, but cultural advisor Javad Shamaghdari told the Hollywood reps exactly what Iran wanted: “We will believe Obama’s policy of change when we see change in Hollywood too.” In other words, no more movies critical of Islam or Iran. That’s not all Shamaghdari demanded:

If Hollywood wants to correct its behavior towards Iranian people and Islamic culture then they have to officially apologize.

So Hollywood infidels are expected to publicly acknowledge and embrace their dhimmi status. Most Hollywood infidels would be right onboard with that. But not the following filmmakers.

We in the West usually take movies for granted and accord them little more significance than mere entertainment. But our Islamic enemies, like the Communists and Nazis before them, fully recognize the cultural power of cinema and work hard to control it. Movies, especially of the Western variety, are often banned as un-Islamic in sharia-controlled areas, especially ones that flaunt sexual immodesty (Sex and the City), homosexuality (even the merely metrosexual Zoolander), or the depiction of drug use.

That doesn’t mean that such movies don’t circulate underground; in very Westernized Iran, for example, the mullahs do their best to keep a lid on the populace’s preference for American cultural decadence, but pirated DVDs are eagerly consumed by viewers privately.

What follows is a mostly chronological list of ten movies that for various reasons particularly offended Islamic values or regimes in the Middle East, especially Iran, which takes any opportunity to spew blustery propaganda about our warmongering, cultural aggression. With the exception of the Oscar-nominated French-Iranian film Persepolis, which I chose because Iran rated it as “more dangerous” than 300, I limited my selections to well-known Hollywood feature films, although Iran’s Ahmadinejad banned all foreign films in late 2005 and even many from Iranian filmmakers.

10)         Not Without My Daughter

1991’s Not Without My Daughter, starring Sally Field and Alfred Molina, is a movie that probably no studio exec would dare “greenlight” today, thanks to a stultifying Hollywood environment of political correctness. Released only a few days before the Gulf War began, and based on one of the two “most hated” books in Iran (the other being Salman Rushdie’s infamously blasphemous The Satanic Verses), it depicts the daring real-life escape of American citizen Betty Mahmoody and her daughter from Iran.

Mahmoody was being kept a virtual prisoner by her husband, who beat and threatened her, and by his strictly devout family, who pressured her to conform to the life of a submissive Muslim wife. Though some Iranian characters in the film were treated sympathetically, Not Without My Daughter earned a ban from the Iranian leadership for embarrassing the mullahs and for exposing their oppression and the grim reality of life for women under sharia law.

9)        The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded was banned in Egypt in 2003 by a 15-member censor committee made up of film critics, professors, writers and psychologists. The committee said that

Despite the high technology and fabulous effects of the movie, it explicitly handles the issue of existence and creation, which are related to the three divine religions, which we all respect and believe in. The movie tackles the issue of the creator and his creations, searching the origin of creation and the issue of compulsion and free will. Such religious issues, raised in previous times, caused crises.

But it wasn’t just the alternative concepts of divinity and free will that made the censors uncomfortable. Violence in the film also played a role:

Screening the movie may cause troubles and harm social peace.

The first Matrix was shown in Egypt but some claimed it promoted Zionism. An Egyptian movie critic said

The press launched a campaign to stop showing the movie, saying that it reflects Zionist ideas, and promotes Jewish and Zionist beliefs. That is why they are very cautious, to avoid any criticism this [time].

Ah, Jewish and Zionist beliefs. Can’t have those floating around out there in society, causing troubles and harming the social peace.

8)         Alexander

Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic about the life of Alexander the Great may not have set the box office on fire, but it certainly inflamed opinions in Iran because of its depiction of the embarrassing historical truth that the young conqueror, played by Colin Farrell with a distractingly Farah Fawcett-inspired hairstyle, decimated the Persian army under Darius III and destroyed the royal palace in Persepolis in 330 B.C., effectively ending the Persian Empire.

It didn’t help that the movie left little to the imagination about Alexander’s relationship with his boyhood companion Hephaistion, played by Jared Leto. As everyone knows since his appearance at Columbia University in 2007, President Ahmadinejad has asserted that such relationships don’t exist in Iran, and banning movies like Alexander will help keep things that way. That, and continuing to hang gay people.

7)         300

“Hollywood declares war on Iranians,” blared a Tehran newspaper headline upon the 2007 release of 300, the movie version of the graphic novel rendering of the famous last stand of a small but fearless Spartan force against waves of Persians, who are depicted as decadent, arrogant, and imperialistic – the same charges Ahmadinejad and the mullahs level at the U.S. today.

Cultural adviser Javad Shamghadri said of 300 that America was out to “humiliate” Iran, “reverse historical reality” and “provoke American soldiers and warmongers” against Iran.

The film depicts Iranians as demons, without culture, feeling or humanity, who think of nothing except attacking other nations and killing people.

In other words, much like President Ahmadinejad depicts Jews and Americans. One newspaper wrote,

It is a new effort to slander the Iranian people and civilization before world public opinion at a time of increasing American threats against Iran.

The accusation that 300 insults Persian heritage is ironic considering that since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Iranian clerical leadership has done its level best to eradicate that same pre-Islamic Persian heritage; but then, nobody does irony like radical Muslims.

One of the movie’s more brilliant scenes: When a Persian envoy comes to King Leonidas and demands submission, the contemporary reference to Islam (which means “submission,” not “peace,” as our own media and government keep insisting) is clear. “Submission?” Leonidas ponders. “Well that’s a bit of a problem,” he replies just before kicking the envoy into a bottomless abyss.

6)         Persepolis

The critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated 2007 Persepolis, adapted from an autobiographical graphic novel, tells the story of a young girl (writer/director Marjan Satrapi) in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and how her world changed for the worse as the Islamists took power. The Iranian authorities branded the animated film ”anti-revolutionary.” An official of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) actually said

Persepolis is potentially more dangerous than productions such as ‘300’, because it depicts some reality, which has however been mixed up with a large dose of the producers’ fantasies.

A more dangerous influence than 300 - quite an achievement. The official dismissed the film’s veracity by saying that “the events of the film take place in its directors’ subconscious minds.” The authorities later allowed a couple of screenings of a censored version of Persepolis for several dozen viewers, explaining that

The aim of this screening is to end the delusions surrounding the film which have been created by the media.

Ah, delusions created by the media. When you can’t make your case with the facts and the historical record, simply label your opponents delusional.

5)         The Kingdom

Under the caption “Why the ban? What’s new about Hollywood lies?”, an article on Middle East Online notes that Kuwait and Bahrain banned the 2007 Peter Berg-directed action flick The Kingdom featuring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner. It centers on an FBI team investigating a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia similar to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 Americans. A source at the cinema committee of Kuwait’s information ministry helpfully explained that

The screening of the film has been banned in Kuwait for many reasons, chiefly because it is a false depiction of facts.

No further details about which facts or in what way they were false were forthcoming. Pardon my skepticism, but I suspect it was banned because censors were displeased with its rather accurate portrayal of murderous Islamic terrorists in the film.

4)        Body of Lies

This Ridley Scott-directed thriller from 2008 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, about a hunt for an al-Qaida leader, suggested that Iran is complicit in international terrorism and drug trafficking. This naturally displeased the Iranian top dogs, because the truth hurts. But that wasn’t the only thing about this flick that displeased them.

Young Golshifteh Farahani, the first Iranian actress living in Iran to star in a Hollywood film, appeared in the film as DiCaprio’s love interest. Unfortunately, she also appeared without a hijab, contrary to the Iranian authorities’ requirements of her contract; she was temporarily barred from leaving Iran to discuss any future roles in Hollywood, and interrogated by the intelligence service.

It’s ironic that Body of Lies was banned, considering that it’s loaded with the usual Hollywood moral equivalence: the CIA is portrayed as no better than the terrorists. For example, while about to be butchered by jihadists, DiCaprio flashes back to his own involvement in torturing and killing a Muslim suspect. The film even opens with a poem suggesting that Islamic terrorism is nothing more than blowback for U.S. geopolitical meddling – America’s chickens coming home to roost, as Obama’s mentor memorably put it.

3)         The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke was robbed of the 2009 Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in The Wrestler as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a down-and-out former professional wrestler trying to get his life together outside the ring. How could this low-budget slice-of-white-trash-life movie possibly offend Muslim sensibilities or humiliate Iran, you ask?

One of Randy’s old wrestling nemeses is a character who bills himself as “The Ayatollah” and comes into the ring waving an Iranian flag to rile up the locals. Randy not only defeats the Ayatollah in the staged bout, but in the course of doing so, snaps the Ayatollah’s flagpole in half – thereby earning special condemnation from Iran for this seemingly apolitical, Darren Aronofsky-directed gem.

2)       Sex and the City 2

Set in Abu Dhabi but actually shot in Morocco, the further cinematic exploits of New York City’s four unlikeliest sex symbols was banned in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE’s media regulatory body, the National Media Council (NMC), announced that Sex and the City 2 will never be shown there because “the theme of the film does not fit with our cultural values.” I suppose those are the same cultural values that lead the UAE to charge rape victims with crimes and jail women for kissing someone on the cheek in public. Also they don’t like the word “sex” in the title or the film’s presumably salacious content, which is why Abu Dhabi wouldn’t let Sarah Jessica Parker and her cohorts film there in the first place.

The real story here is not the UAE ban but the wave of Western criticism of the film’s “insensitivity” toward Islamic misogyny. Instead of standing in support of freedom and women’s rights, politically correct multicultural apologists like the completely unhinged Roger Ebert denounced the film as insulting “Arab modesty” and ”blatantly anti-Muslim.”

And that makes for an interesting stark contrast with our next film.

1)       The Stoning of Soraya M.

Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh and co-written by Nowrasteh and wife Betsy, The Stoning of Soraya M. dramatized the real-life story of an Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in the years following the fundamentalist revolution of 1979. The story highlighted the almost incomprehensible reality that this Draconian punishment still exists in Iran (and elsewhere where sharia is strictly enforced). The worldwide attention the film drew to this horrific practice forced the Iranian leadership to temporarily suspend stoning and reconsider it.

As the country wrestled with revolution in the summer of 2009, bootleg DVDs of The Stoning were being shared secretly by Iranian citizens and shown in private homes throughout Iran, despite official condemnation of the film and the likelihood of being tortured or killed for possessing it. As I wrote at the time:

The Stoning of Soraya M.’s risky popularity is a reminder that the emotional core and storytelling power of such a film can embarrass the powers-that-be and embolden a brutalized populace to resist, even in the face of imprisonment and execution.

That’s the power of film, and that’s why totalitarians fear it.