CAIRO — Though “Beauty and the Beast” was released over a month ago in Egyptian theaters, it’s still making waves.
The movie has been ruling the box office for more than a month now, even though several other movies were also released during Egypt’s spring holiday season. As of April 18, the movie had made 8 million Egyptian pounds (about $443,000). The unprecedented revenues the movie raked in in Egypt are in line with its record revenues around the world, making it one of 29 films to bring in over $1 billion.
Several countries’ censorship apparatuses have objected to the movie over its “homosexual” scenes. A theater in the US state of Alabama refused to screen the film, and Malaysia demanded the removal of what it described as “scenes with homosexual content.” Disney, the producer, rejected such demands and decided to indefinitely postpone the screening of the movie in the areas in question. Malaysia relented. Singapore released the movie with a 16+ rating, warning that the film contains scenes that are not suitable for children. India, Russia and Indonesia released the movie with age restrictions.
Remarkably, and despite the usual obstacles it places before any controversial content, the Egyptian censorship apparatus allowed the screening of “Beauty and the Beast” with no content warnings.
Mirvat Habib, the director of the Foreign Films Department at Egypt’s Censorship of Artistic Works, told Al-Monitor that she had agreed to the movie’s release in Egyptian theaters without warnings or requests to remove any scenes, as there were no scenes requiring deletion or warnings. She said that the controversial scene does not include overt homosexual insinuations, and the countries that banned the movie were already particularly sensitive to this issue. She called on the Egyptian public to watch the film before criticizing the decision to allow its release.
A source at the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate criticized the position of the censorship body and told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We fully support artistic freedom, but this movie primarily targets children, and children should not be watching scenes with homosexual content without parental supervision or age restrictions. The censorship apparatus’ dealing with the movie was very strange, especially considering that it usually rejects and asks for the removal of any sexual content, even in movies targeting adults. I think that the apparatus is merely trying to justify its position after it allowed the screening of the movie without careful and adequate examination of all its scenes.”
Tariq al-Shennawi, a professor of art criticism at Cairo University’s Higher Institute of Cinema Arts, told Al-Monitor, “The scenes, suggestions or words in question, which offend public decency or include homosexual insinuations, are integral to the dramatic context of the movie. Were they appropriately placed? I think that the filmmakers weren’t expecting the scene to cause a stir, as it just includes a hint at a homosexual relationship between two men, and it’s up to the viewer to interpret that hint as he or she pleases.”
However, he added, “Allowing the movie’s screening without removing any scenes was an appropriate step on the part of the Censorship of Artistic Works, and I hope that it becomes the general approach to dealing with all films. The censorship apparatus is not entitled to prevent the screening of a film or remove [any scenes therein], because this would be tantamount to limiting the freedom of its creators. Also, the decision to delete a scene — whether for technical or other reasons — is subjective and differs from person to person, so it is better to rely on age restrictions in many cases so as to protect the creator’s work and avoid restricting their freedom of expression while preserving public morals.”
Shennawi speculated, “The censorship apparatus may not have chosen to apply age restrictions for ‘Beauty and the Beast’ because it did not consider the movie to include any harmful scenes.”
Independent art critic Nader Adly agreed with Shennawi and told Al-Monitor, “Malaysia’s request for the censorship of some scenes or banning of the movie altogether … is a futile approach because it won’t be long before the movie goes viral on the internet. Banning and removing [scenes] is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, the solution is to use the tool of age restrictions. We should keep in mind that the decision was made by the censorship apparatus out of its belief that the children would not be harmed by any scenes in a movie.”
Despite the permissive official stance, filmmakers at home and abroad still must tread lightly in Egypt. The movie did not make it past the Egyptian censors out of respect for artistic freedom, but simply because the censors judged the controversial scenes inoffensive.