KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Deep within the Kuwait Ministry of Information’s sprawling, high-security complex, seven government films censors gather for a screening of "The Last Song," a drama starring Miley Cyrus. Seated in plush velvet seats in front of a large, cinema-style screen, the censors graze on soft drinks and snacks while attendants circle the theater, refilling drinks and serving sandwiches.
It feels like a typical, lazy, weekday matinee — until Cyrus leaps into the arms of her co-star and leans in for a long and passionate kiss. Watching the screen, the censors drop their sandwiches and reach for the white buttons attached to their armrest, activating a bell and flashing light. The bell alerts John Prasard, working upstairs in the cinema’s projection room, to cut the scene. He stores the offending frames on a crowded cabinet shelf; stocked with illicit scenes, the cabinet is a trove of steamy embraces and blasphemous talk.
In the Arabian Gulf, abundant petrodollars buy easy access to the Western world as well as the ability to resist foreign influences. The tiny gulf nation of Kuwait embodies this dichotomy; it has pursued a path that combines political liberalism with cultural conservatism, boasting the region’s most powerful parliament while also remaining heavily influenced by the Wahhabi ideology of neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Censorship policies within the country reflect these dual forces. In 2009, the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House ranked Kuwait second in the region — and first among the Arab states — in its annual freedom of the press survey. Yet Kuwait also enforces some of the most stringent film censorship regulations in the world. “No strong violence, sex, kissing, drugs, black magic,” explained Qannas al Adwani, a government film censor. “If there are a lot of bikinis, we will not allow it.”
Every film that is going to be screened publicly in Kuwait must first be cycled through the Ministry of Information’s cinema, and government censors watch hundreds of films a year. The list of offensive material is long and ambiguous, and standards are often unevenly applied. One Bahraini film was left uncut for its first showing but censored for a second viewing, and sexual innuendo is often translated literally, leaving highly explicit dialogue intact for public screenings.
Even American films portraying the United States in a negative light can be grounds for prohibition. “Don’t forget one fact: that the Kuwait people are very thankful to the Americans for the U.S. support for liberating Kuwait,” said Kuwaiti censor Ahmed bin Yacoub. “They still have it inside of them, and they don’t want to show anything that really hurts the American people.”
As a result of the censors’ efforts, attending the cinema in Kuwait can be a frustrating endeavor.
Crucial plot-twists remain hidden away in the censors’ cabinet, disrupting the film’s narrative and confounding the audience. Yet with a prohibition on bars and alcohol, as well as a societal taboo against male-female interaction outside of the family, options for weekend-night entertainment are limited. As a result, many Kuwaitis continue to patronize, however grudgingly, the cinema.
The implications of these policies are both broad and nebulous. In recent years, a budding film industry has taken root in the Gulf, and yet Kuwaiti filmmakers have seen much of their work banned in their own country. They have begun to look elsewhere to promote their movies, and Dubai, with its relatively loose censorship policies and biannual film festivals, has emerged as a regional mecca for young cinematographers.
Mousaed Khaled, a Kuwaiti screenwriter and director, no longer bothers to submit his films to the Kuwait Ministry of Information for review, preferring to screen his films in festivals abroad. “They don’t want people to think, or have a hint to think differently,” he said of the government’s censors. “I would rather live in a place where my children can express themselves freely.”
His colleague, filmmaker Faisal al Duwaisan, asked: “If we cannot think deeply about our feelings, relationships, perspective, thoughts, whatever is happening in our society, point of view, how are we going to develop?” Al Duwaisan believes that Kuwait allows criticism of government policies and yet severely restricts film content because “art is more dangerous than politics.”
Others, however, argue that censorship protects the nation’s religious values. Khaaledah Burhmah, an English literature student at the American University of Kuwait, believes that it is appropriate to censor religious content and sexual material. “It is not necessary to see these scenes,” she argued. “We must respect Islam.”
As for the censors, they contend that their work protects Kuwait’s children. There is no film rating system in Kuwait, and the censors must ensure that each film released to the public is suitable for all ages. Still, many of them are sympathetic to the artists whose work they alter.
Ahmed Bin Yacoub feels this tension particularly acutely; in addition to serving as a censor, he also works an amateur playwright. One of his plays addresses the Arab citizen’s “struggle to achieve the most important thing in his life: freedom in the way he thinks,” and he is currently working on a Roots-inspired novel about racism in America. A foreign critic once dubbed him the "Shakespeare of Kuwait."
Both artist and censor, he is conflicted by the work he does. For someone to censor his own work, he says, would be like “cutting your soul.” Out of respect to the filmmakers, he argues in favor of simply banning movies that that have been severely edited. “If you want to cut too many scenes, you will ruin it, OK? Just ban it, it is better.”