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Matrix undone
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 06 - 2003

Matrix Reloaded, at least for now, is being kept out of Egyptian cinemas, reports Amina Elbendary
Matrix Reloaded, the second part of the Matrix trilogy, met with worldwide media hype. In Cairo, though, the hype took a different turn: the Department for Monitoring Artistic Products banned the film. Quite why Matrix Reloaded should have generated so much anxiety, though, remains unclear.
Monitoring Authority Director Madkour Thabet, himself a filmmaker, seeks to maintain positive relations with his colleagues.
"I refuse to be called a censor," he insists, in classical Arabic. He sees himself rather as a regulator and defender of artistic rights. Most of the so-called censorship problems, he claims, are in fact disputes among filmmaking parties over various artistic rights. And it is true that, during his tenure in office, there have been remarkably few public controversies. Matrix Reloaded is one of only a handful of films to have been summarily banned.
Yet this is hardly a golden age for filmmaking and negative responses to the banning of the film are rife. Critic Mustafa Darwish, who was at one time in charge of censorship himself, is one concerned party who laments the intrusion of the censor on films such as 8 Mile, a recent release so drastically distorted, he says, that moviegoers were repelled. "I was alone in the hall when I went to see it," Darwish remembers in dismay. Shady Zend, sales manager of United Motion Pictures, agents of Warner Brothers and distributors of Matrix Reloaded, backs up this view: "All I can say is that things are progressing from bad to worse."
One strategy Thabet has adopted is to rely on the verdict of a group of publically acknowledged intellectuals from different backgrounds. These shura committees, as he calls them, allow for a pool of views that transcends the bureaucracy.
"That in itself is a good thing, because it means that decisions are not totally left to government bureaucrats who don't know anything about film," a member of the first committee to view Matrix Reloaded comments. Backed by these committees Thabet, for his part, can confidently off-load criticism of the authority's decisions.
But shifting the blame from the figure of the Censor to so-called independent experts does not hold water with the likes of Darwish.
"This is the Monitoring Department's role," he says, "its responsibility. And it alone is accountable for its decisions."
It is one thing to arrange screenings for journalists and critics to assess possible reactions, he argues, and quite another to set up a structure like the shura committees. "The name itself has Islamist connotations," Darwish adds. Nor is it a set committee; a new committee is drawn up every time Thabet receives a controversial report from the censors. And the makeup of each is subject to questioning.
"What do psychology or sociology professors know about film?" Zend protests. And it is true that the final committee advising on Matrix Reloaded was made up mostly of academics, none of whom have an interest in cinema.
The first part of the trilogy, The Matrix, was itself rejected by the department before another, higher committee approved its screening at the beginning of Thabet's tenure. That it did not cause any controversy then begs the question of the impact of the regional context, at the present historical moment, on committee members' decision.
"It does of course have an effect. No doubt," concedes Thabet. In rejecting Matrix Reloaded the committee of intellectuals are rejecting a perceived assault on Arab Muslim culture and values by an American cultural product. And it certainly doesn't help that the city saved in the film is called Zion. That all the critics I talked to were aware of the significance of Zion in a Christian theological context, some argued this significance would be lost on general audiences who would equate Zion with the state of Israel, an argument to which Thabet subscribes.
"The riqaba (censorship) is always trying to save us from ourselves," jokes Darwish.
If this were the only objection, though, there would have been ways around it.
"I believe in Lebanon, where they allowed the film, they didn't translate the word 'Zion' in the subtitles," offers Zend. "And Lebanon is officially at war with Israel."
Another issue of concern is the theology behind the movie.
The committee found that "despite high artistic and technical levels the film deals explicitly with issues of creation and existence related to the three monotheistic religions we all respect and believe. This includes discussions of the issue of the Creator and the created, the origins of creation, free will and predestination, and other theological issues that have caused controversies and tension."
The very discourse of the statement is a major set- back, says Darwish. "It is a set-back to involve religious discourse in matters of science fiction. This is a science fiction film. This statement, if it shows anything, shows that the people behind it are like the people of the cave."
These ideas are not revolutionary and have been discussed in films before. "The Matrix was originally based on comic books, like Super Man. Are they going to ban Super Man too?" asks Zend, not too-rhetorically. "Besides," he continues, "other Arab countries, Lebanon, the Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan are allowing the film. Do we have more faith than them or are we more ignorant?"
"Yes, Egypt is different," insists Thabet. "Sometimes it is necessary to send a message. And when an action is repeated several times the message does get across to filmmakers."
Which is exactly the point that critics of the ban make. At a time when Arab regimes are under tremendous pressure, especially since 11 September, actions such as banning a high profile American production are reported as evidence of how oppressive our societies are.
"By making such decisions we are affirming such misconceptions about us, that we and our ideas are a threat to humanity. This is scandalous. Egypt is now being perceived as a beacon of reactionary thought," argues Darwish. "We're sending the wrong message at the wrong time," laments one historian who was on the first committee and who recommended screening the film.
Though the ideas behind the matrix are not new, they did provide opportunities for philosophical discussion and, inevitably, publications and games all over the world. The references to religion in the form of the characters Neo and Trinity were not lost on audiences abroad but have not been taken too seriously. In fact Matrix Reloaded itself is not being taken too seriously by critics. That Neo is also a Saviour and therefore could be interpreted as a deity as well, was cause for concern by critics here. Should the character be interpreted as an embodiment of the Almighty, that would be seen as not only as heresy but outright apostasy by extremist viewers. These viewers might be driven to violence. And this itself concerns many intellectuals.
Many see this threat as far- fetched. "What audience is going to resort to violence? What are they talking about? A movie ticket now costs LE20," says Darwish. "We all remember what happened with controversies such A Banquet for Seaweed, don't we?" says a scriptwriter who was on the committee and who favoured screening with cuts.
On one level, perhaps, Matrix Reloaded is being sacrificed in order to preserve an already embattled artistic field from further incursions. But a sacrifice to whom? A compromise to whom? Are intellectuals compromising with virtual or real ghosts?
That a film is bad, that its ideas are controversial, should not keep it out of movie houses. The film could very well be screened and receive negative criticism. Why should the apprehension of negative critical reviews be a reason to ban a film?
"So what if critics attack it in newspapers?" asks Darwish.
Another concern mentioned in the censorship statement was the level of violence.
"The films' overall structure includes many long violent scenes that are beyond limit at a time when we are trying to resist the phenomena of violence in all its forms to ensure social harmony and affirm concepts of internal and external peace. Screening such a film could cause harm to social peace and affirm the concept of the culture of violence," the statement reads in part.
Which is perhaps one of the statement's most glaringly hypocritical aspects, given the kind of fare, Egyptian and foreign, regularly screened.
Critics of the ban point out that such decisions appear out of tune with the times, given advances in technology.
"There are many contradictions in their decisions, frankly. On the one hand the Ministry of Information is inaugurating new satellite channels, and on the other we're still banning movies. What is this? Do you know that pirated copies of the film are already on sale downtown? They shot up from LE10 to LE30 after the ban. We expected this movie to make a minimum of LE1 million at the box offices in Egypt. That would have given the government at least LE200,000 in taxes, in addition to a comparable sum in taxes from the movie theatres. This is wasted money. Movie theatres were looking forward to a big hit to make up for the losses of the past few months, when box-office receipts fell during the war on Iraq and then the exam season. Instead people are going to buy pirated copies on CD and DVD or else watch the film eventually, uncut and with Arabic subtitles, on satellite television," says a by-now furious Zend.
This may not be the end of the matter, however. The decision will be reviewed by the Complaints Committee which might overturn the Monitoring Department. Critics are not very optimistic since the Complaints Committee includes representatives of the Monitoring Department, the State Council and the various arts syndicates.
No doubt there are genuine concerns behind both the committee and the Monitoring Department's decision. But at the end of the day we are left with a cumulative effect that lowers the ceiling of freedom in this country, regardless of the film in question.
"And it is," warns Darwish, "extremely disturbing."

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