1. Lebanese Radio: first confrontation with censorship
I was hosting a pop music programme on national Lebanese radio called Les Marsupilamis ont les yeux bleus (‘Marsupilami Got Blue Eyes’), and had seen the film Mondo Cane (Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, 1962): I suggested making a news journal of a similar type, and searched through the AFP’s files for information on strange things happening around the world. This was in 1970. One day, I arrived at the radio station and was informed my show had been cancelled. A journalist later told me I had violated the station’s rules. Outraged that the broadcasters had banned me for no good reason, I went on air anyway, informing listeners that although I had been silenced, Marsupilami would always have blue eyes.
2. Lebanese Television
After Jordan’s Black September, I worked for Lebanese television with Jörg Stocklin. I was told not to mention anything involving the Israelis and the Palestinians. I protested, pointing out that we had demonstrated alongside the Palestinians in 1969. It seemed that the only journalist permitted to address these issues was the one who received a weekly envelope filled with money from Saudi Arabia.
In 1973, Palestinian refugees were bombed in Lebanon. We went up on the roofs and saw planes dropping bombs, decimating entire neighbourhoods. There were Palestinian Fedayeen fighters in the streets. I knew I couldn’t continue working for a television station whose leaders refused to publicly acknowledge the presence of Palestinian fighters in the camps or the problems faced by refugees.
3. Egypt: a first warning
I left Lebanon and came to work in France. The October War began in Egypt, and a general declared, “no women are allowed at the front.” Out of 400 journalists, there were three women, including Rosy Rouleau (photojournalist and co-founder of the Sygma agency) and me. Once war had been declared, everything was Islamized, putting religion in the forefront and women in prison. I learned a lot from that.
4. Iraqi Kurdistan: cutting
I left Iraqi Kurdistan to do a report for the magazine 52 minutes. In order to bring back images, I crossed the border by car and deliberately allowed myself to be kidnapped. Official censorship reared its ugly head, and the Iraqi embassy, which maintained excellent relations with France, requested that images of the abduction be withdrawn. I have seen these images in the archives of INA (the French National Audiovisual Institute), but the report was circulated without them.
5. French press: defamation
Sometimes I walked between the raindrops, managing to remain invisible. In 1974, I made Le Front du Refus (aka ‘Les Commandos-suicides’ or ‘Suicide Commandos’), a documentary about young Palestinian fighters, 15 or 16 years old, who had lost their land and joined the resistance against Israel. The report was broadcast on Antenne 2 in July 1975, and seen everywhere. But the French press was offended, and claimed these Palestinian adolescents were Nazis, which, of course, is absurd – they were simply saluting their flag. Calling them Nazis was the easiest way to deny the legitimacy of their struggle, a political horror of the very worst kind.
6. French Television: refusal to broadcast
In 1973, I made Les Femmes palestiniennes (‘Palestinian Women’) for Antenne 2. I wanted to disseminate images of these women, Palestinian fighters in Syria, who had so little. This was just before Sadat’s visit to Israel, and the situation was very tense. While I was cutting the film at my local Antenne 2 station, Paul Nahon, who at that time headed the foreign news division, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me out of the editing room. Les Femmes palestiniennes was never screened. I have deposited a copy with the French Film Archives at Bois d’Arcy.
7. Lebanon: camera destroyed
In 1975, a most unexpected event. I decided to make a film about the war in Lebanon, Le Liban dans la Tourmente (‘Lebanon in a Whirlwind’), giving a voice to all parties: Communists, Phalangists, etc. As with the other groups, I asked the Phalangists for access to their training camps. When their young leader, Bashir Gemayel, refused me, I turned to his father, Pierre Gemayel, who was a friend of my father. In collaboration with Eric Rouleau and Rosy Rouleau, I filmed the Phalangists parading in the Lebanese mountains – they’d been trained in Israel. While we were riding in a car, a Pahalangist attacked me and grabbed my hair. Rosy immediately came to my aid, breaking one of her ribs in the process. Our 16mm camera was destroyed, and the footage recorded by it lost, so we ended up using photographs taken by Rosy in the film instead. I could hardly believe it was possible for me to be beaten up simply because I was doing my job as a journalist. I became aware of my fragility. That day, I felt myself merging with imagery of the war, and this feeling has never left me. It was as if I were a stone which had been destroyed in this destroyed country. Before this, I was a frail young girl, well-educated, who had nothing in common with the commandos. But this act of aggression obliged me to choose sides, even though I was still willing to listen to everybody. So for a while, I became committed to the struggle. My father, who had obtained this appointment for me, was furious. Lebanon was already a country in which a state of war existed between various communities.
The French and British press revealed their prejudices by reversing the meaning of the images. They made it seem as if the Christian Phalangists were civilised and the Palestinians barbaric. But only the Phalangists attacked a young woman for no reason and censored the images she had created by breaking her camera. Such a censorship, enforced by physical violence, did not prevent me from finishing the film, which was shown in cinemas but not on television (TV channels being effectively controlled by the Christian Lebanese). In France, it was screened at the Olympic Entrepôt art cinema.
8. Lebanon: first death threats
On April 13, 1975, the anniversary of the first Palestinian massacre, 27 passengers were killed on a hijacked bus in Beirut. This resulted in an outbreak of civil war. In 1976, after another outbreak, three more of my films were shown on French television: Les Enfants de la guerre (‘Children of War’), Sud-Liban – Histoire d’un village (‘South Lebanon – The Story of a Village’), and Beyrouth, jamais plus (‘Beirut, Never Again’). Les Enfants de la guerre, which attested to the horrific massacre of Palestinians in la Quarantaine, a district of Beirut, displeased the Phalangists. During a televised debate on the civil war, I didn’t hesitate to reveal the truth and respond to Moshe Dayan’s claims concerning la Quarantaine. One morning, I was reading a newspaper and came across a caricature of me, blindfolded. It was a death threat. This was terrifying. I bought every copy of this newspaper I could find in Hamra and threw them in the trash. But I kept two copies, so as to remember this violence. I spent two days in bed, hiding under the sheets until my fear subsided. Then I began to feel jaded.
Beirut was divided in two. Concealed under a blanket in the backseat of a car, I went to see my father in the Christian district, returned by way of Byblos, toured Lebanon’s Muslim section, and came back to Beirut. These trips through some magnificent landscapes restored me, and refreshed my point of view.
9. Egypt, Sweden: first ban, first night in prison
In 1976, Beirut collapsed, and I went to Egypt to shoot a film without authorisation or intention. At this time, activists of the Arab left, such as Khaled Mohieddine (a member of the Revolutionary Command Council), were acting particularly bravely; although they could have been imprisoned for a single word, they thought, created, sang, filmed. I learned so much from them; they were simultaneously artists and politicians, totally involved in both life and the revolutionary struggle. I visited many members of the Egyptian left, notably Mohamed Sid Ahmed, a journalist, former communist activist and political figure who in 1976 helped co-found the Parti du Rassemblement (the Tagammu), which included Marxist thinkers and Nasserists of the left, and Loutfi al-Kholi, screenwriter of Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow (1972) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (1976), a great friend of Bernadette Lafont. I filmed Ahmad Fouad Nagm, a magnificent poet who had spent 18 years in prison, and his friend Cheikh Imam, a revolutionary singer. At the same time, I made Égypte, la cité des morts (‘Egypt, City of the Dead’), dealing with that strange process by which shop windows in Egypt were suddenly full of luxury products intended solely for consumption by a small wealthy class, while everyone else was dying of hunger. This was the beginning of globalisation. Without a second thought, I was shooting the City of the Dead, which for me was more attractive than the rest of Cairo. At this time, my films were being shown all over the world, but the only complaint I received came from the Egyptian Embassy in Sweden. Loutfi al-Kholi telephoned me, saying “but Jocelyne, you have betrayed us!” He watched the film in an assembly hall in the thirteenth district, and did not understand why it should interest anyone in Sweden. It was later explained that the City of the Dead is on the pilgrims’ passage to Mecca; associating this holy place with revolutionary poets such as Ahmad Fouad Nagm and Cheikh Imam offended some believers, who complained to Sweden’s cultural attaché. As a result, I was banned from entering Egypt for seven years, a ban eventually lifted on October 6, 1981, the day Sadat was assassinated. Yet when I returned to Egypt two years later, I was stopped and taken to a cell in the airport, where I spent a whole night. It seems I was still on the blacklist, or some “redlist”. I could not speak for three days. What did I do to deserve such mistreatment? My body was banned, as well as my mind. It was very difficult. I understand today that this was the origin of Dunia, this feature film which also occupied seven years of my life.
10. Sahara, Morocco: second night in prison
After Egypt, I travelled to the Sahara. I went there as a professional journalist, a career I had abandoned before Le Liban dans la Tourmente, and ended up making Le Sahara n’est pas à vendre (‘The Sahara is Not for Sale’, 1977), which dealt with the conflict between Algerians, Moroccans, and the Polisario Front of the Sahrawi people. I requested the necessary authorizations, since I again wanted to talk to all the parties involved, especially the Tuaregs, the last knights of the desert. The shoot was exciting and challenging. The cinematographer responsible for the first part, Arnaud Hamelin, took a bullet in the hand. I filmed all these young fighters, little more than adolescents, assuming the leaders of the Polisario Front were elsewhere; but no, these youngsters were really the ones in charge. The film was released in Paris, and received excellent reviews, but censorship always emerges when least expected. There was an outcry in the Moroccan press, and I was accused of treason. It is, it seems, forbidden to say something every historian knows; that there were Sahrawi tribes in the Western Sahara long before the kingdom of Morocco existed. Today, they occupy Islamic territory.
Seventeen years after shooting Le Sahara n’est pas à vendre, I returned to Morocco to attend a film festival near Tangier. Feeling carefree, I rented a car so I could travel with my four-year-old son. At one point, the driver began trembling, and decided to stop at a gas station, at which point the car caught fire. I hailed a ride and returned to the festival, where I was under the protection of Youssef Chahine. I planned to depart from Tangiers airport the next day, but when I arrived there, I was stopped. I gave some money to a guard, who let me call the French embassy. I was subsequently freed, but stopped again upon arriving at Casablanca airport, where I spent my second night in prison.
11. French Television: arbitrary suppression
In July 1982, the Israeli army’s siege of Beirut began. I made Beyrouth, ma ville (‘Beirut, My City’) for France 3, but didn’t bother watching it when it was broadcast. Only recently did I look at the film online, and discover it had been changed without my permission, my voiceover was supressed. My thoughts, my walk, my body in the city more than ever belonged to the war. How can someone cut that? Even today, I can hardly believe French television dared rework my film and broadcast it in this form.
12. Egypt: censorship before shooting
In 1985, I returned to Egypt to make six reports for an FR3 programme called Taxi. One of these reports dealt with the Islamic bank – Who controlled it? Who financed it? But I was refused permission to meet certain interviewees, and was compelled to seek out others. Paralysed by the information services, I could not shoot my film.
Thanks to this experience, when I came to make Les Almées (‘The Almeh’) for Canal + in 1989, and was placed under surveillance once more because the Egyptian government did not want images of these very free women to be disseminated, I found ways to shoot clandestinely.
13. Vietnam: filming under surveillance
In 1998, I decided to visit Vietnam and make a documentary about Dr Quong Quyen Hoa. Dr Hoa was a student in France, an adherent of the French Communist Party, who had been imprisoned in Vietnam in 1960, joined the maquis for seven years in 1968, and became the Minister for Health in the southern Provisional Revolutionary Government. She left the party in 1974, denouncing its corruption and tyranny, and had since been under intense scrutiny by the Communist government. She was a model for me. We entered the country without visas, and resided in a house that belonged to Dr Hoa’s family. The police searched this house soon after we started shooting. We moved the Beta videotapes we were using and hid them with Dr Hoa. Upon leaving, we presented two unused tapes to customs. In order to send the other tapes to France without taking the risk of their being intercepted by the border police, Dr. Hoa used Claude Blanchemaison, who was a diplomat at the Quai d’Orsay at the time she was in the maquis. I was overwhelmed by the faithfulness built thanks to the maquis solidarity and still lasting so long after the war. Thanks to Claude’s diplomatic bag, our tapes arrived safely in France, and I was able to start editing La Dame de Saïgon (‘The Lady of Saigon’), which was broadcast first on France 2, then on TV5 Monde, where it was seen by everyone in Vietnam.
14. Egypt: censorship before and after shooting, more death threats
Dunia, completed in 2005, took up seven years of my life in total. This film faced censorship at every step, and all kinds of obstacles – legal, economic, corporate – were placed in its path. I had wanted to show how women were prevented from enjoying life. In 2002, I asked a bookseller friend to investigate the sexuality of young Egyptians. When the answers to the questionnaires arrived, she was very disturbed; they were written in a pornographic style, since even in Egypt the language of love is very rich. The bookseller refused to enter these answers onto her computer, so I collected the questionnaires and gave them to a writer with a view to making a film about female circumcision, a terrible custom that occurs not only in Egypt, but throughout Africa. I wrote the screenplay in a Lebanese dialect and sent it to the Egyptian censorship board, which banned it. This left me with no recourse except the Supreme Court of the State, which was already infiltrated by the forces of fundamentalism. After proceedings which lasted three years, I finally obtained a filming permit. But I did not yet have any money for the shoot. The script had already been circulated to several film magazines, which had printed it without my permission, I felt dispossessed. Without a producer or an actor to collaborate with, the project was too risky. I finally found a producer who accepted because I offered him a good salary and because he had not made a film in ten years. The lead actress, who had been in prison for prostitution, was found by my friend the choreographer Walid Aouni. During filming, I received telephone threats every night, usually around two or three in the morning. My birthday fell towards the end of the shoot; the actress used some sugar to create a portrait of me on the birthday cake, then took a large knife and cut off the portrait’s head! While editing, I learned that the trade unions had been instructed not to give me any rights, such as those for music. When the film was ready for distribution, I was denied the authorization to project it, the pretext being that I was a foreigner. I had to plead with each union director before finally getting the necessary papers. We were so poor we ate at the Secours Populaire (a charitable organisation). ART, a Saudi Arabian television channel, eventually purchased the film, but did so only because they wanted to prevent it being more widely shown. We released the film on video in the normal way, but never received any money from it.
At the Cairo Festival, I carried the 35mm reels myself, since I didn’t want to risk their being confiscated. There was a huge crowd waiting outside the screening room, and an aggressive press waiting for me inside. During the post-screening debate, I was labelled an atheist, a danger to the nation, a prostitute. I explained that I only wanted to defend women. I was subsequently invited to take part in a television debate, broadcast in prime time, where a journalist viciously attacked me. Maybe because I recently suffered from a brain stroke, I defended myself very openly and frankly, and soon became as famous as the President of the Republic. But the film took two years to come out, I was never paid, and even the cinema programmer at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris refused to screen it at the time, in 2005/2006. In short, we discovered that what was at stake was not just the tradition of female genital mutilation; it was the very structure of a society based on the subjugation or enslavement of femininity. Today, Dunia can be viewed for free on the Internet in its original version (without subtitles), something that delights me. Young girls often come to me and confess they have secretly watched it dozens of times.
Interview conducted by Nicole Brenez in Paris, 20 December 2015
Text approved by Jocelyne Saab / Translated by Brad Stevens