Much Ado About 'Theatre and Censorship': strong debates, hazy harvest

Dalia Basiouny, Thursday 28 May 2015

The Censorship and Theatre conference folded its activities this week, after three days of intense, animated conversations

theatre and censorhip
(Photo: artwork from the conference's promotional material)

Held between 24 and 26 May in Cairo and organised by the National Centre for Theatre, Music and Folk Arts, the 'Censorship and Theatre' conference offered a handful of Egyptian papers, in addition to a few Arab and international presentations.

While most Egyptian and Arab speakers spoke about their own experiences or locales, a few presentations did widen the scope of the conversation.

Lebanese researcher Gulnar Wakim introduced the attendees to the role of censorship in Latin America, and how theatre artists in countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile suffered at the hands of officials, and the tactics they used to continue their work, attracting thousands of audiences.

Thomas Engel, the executive manager of the International Theatre Institute (ITI)'s German Centre, spoke in his capacity as the secretary of the ITI Action Committee for Artists Rights.

He emphasised the important role of civil society activists, giving an example of how worldwide public solidarity with Kazakhstani director Bolat Atabayev after his arrest because of his support to oil workers on strike, led to his release from prison. He posed questions on how artists can react to violation of free expression, and on the challenges and responsibilities of democratic dialogue.

Janice Sze Wan Poon from Hong Kong showed touching examples of tactics to avoid censorship in conflict zones, focusing on Hong Kong since its handover from Britain to China.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer/director Meriam Bousselmi took the conversation to another level in her presentation on “Theatre and the Art of Disturbing General Order.”

In Bousselmi's understanding, censorship is not only practiced in dictatorships. She offered a number of examples from Europe and elsewhere, where theatre censorship had transferred from “institutional censorship” to that of the “intellectual lobbies” using disguised moral terrorism.

"Why don’t we arrest artists who do bad theatre?" she asked, sparking a few knowing laughs from attendees.

Lebanese actor and director Nidal Al Achcar’s paper "On Theatre and Theatre Censorship” was a crowd pleaser. Her passionate delivery and grandiose rhetoric impressed people to the extent that it was included as part of the conference's results.

The session about Theatre in Schools with two rudimentary papers – "The Inevitability of Censorship on School Theatre” by Omaima Gado, and “Theatre in Educational Settings” by Aly Dawod  – raised questions about the criteria for inclusion in the conference.

The conversation that ensued after the first presenter stressed the “necessity of censorship” unveiled some of the problematic underpinnings in Egyptian society.

Egyptian writer and director Ahmed Adel Al-Quddaby's work raised the issue of the range of freedom in his paper “Theatre Clubs”, and prepared the floor for one of the conference's most sincere debates about who has the right to “protect” (i.e. censor) youth from the consequences of their creativity.

A declaration and a Network for the Protection of Arab Artists

Three days of heavily loaded conference sessions led to suggestions and propositions, some of them coming as a surprise to conference attendees.

At the most loaded final session, most of the attendees and speakers were surprised to hear conference organiser Assem Nagaty grandly announce the Second Cairo Declaration.

(The First Cairo Declaration, it appears, was issued at the end of a previous conference organised by the same institution six months ago.)

The Cairo Declaration, which came in place of a conference recommendation, proposed some interesting notions such as: challenging censorship, cancelling any guardianship over the audience, activating the role of civil society, dealing with legislative challenges in censorship laws and applying pressure to create law changes.

Unfortunately, the declaration was not supported by any action plan explaining how it is supposed to be implemented. Accordingly, most of these noble ideas are likely to remain just words.

Equally astonishing was how Nagaty used the conference platform to declare that "Egypt has no oppression", clarifying his point only in Arabic, hence leaving the international guests unable to understand his statement.

His statement nevertheless enraged a few attendees.

Most vocal was Egyptian writer and critic Mohsen El-Merghany, a co-founder of Critics of the Continuing Revolution Movement.

“You are altering what happened and making a statement that misrepresents what took place at this conference," said El-Merghany, standing up to challenge Nagaty’s declaration. "Not one presenter or commentator or attendee at the three-day conference mentioned that there is no oppression in Egypt. The opposite is true!”

Nagaty did not respond to this statement.

One interesting initiative proposed at the final session was establishing a Network for the Protection of Arab Artists. Jordanian artist Ghannam Ghannam said he would take immediate steps to activate this much-needed network, as a platform to ensure the safety of Arab artists.

Murky outcomes

With a large assortment of papers and often extremely heated discussions, the conference has revealed a lot of issues.

In spite of great effort in logistical organisation, something major was missing: academic or artistic rigour. The few well-prepared papers did not get enough time to be presented properly, with the triumphant voice becoming the hyperbolic.

The thinly attended conference seemed to be divided into three obvious camps: one that stressed the necessity of having censorship, another that did not approve of any place for censorship in modern society, and a third group that theoretically disapproved of censorship but felt the need for it at this juncture.

It was surprising to see a large number of Egyptian artists, writers and directors in the third camp. Most of their reasoning equated abolishing censorship with encouraging immorality.

Their arguments disconnected censorship from its political roots and hooked it only to corporal issues. There is grave danger in such an approach. The body is political, of course. But when first established in Egypt in 1881, censorship was intended mainly to monitor and silence dissident voices against Khedive Tewfik.

It is a troubling indicator that the conversation in 2015 focuses on the small-scale freedoms of whether to show less or more flesh on stage, while ignoring the larger sense of freedom and pressing political issues.

At the end of three days of sessions and conversations, a question arises about the selection criteria needed to make this kind of gathering truly a conference, not just a meeting between different voices.

Missing from this conference were both the independent and most established artists who have waged long battles with the censors in Egypt. Their absence could have been the result of a lack of sufficient advertising, or them "boycotting" the event. In either case, the absence of some of the major players neither served the conference, nor helped reach any possible future resolutions.

Unfortunately, the enlightened voices of renowned theatre critic Nehad Selaiha and former culture minister Emad Abou Ghazi made limited contributions, as their role was assigned mainly to facilitating sessions.

At this Egyptian conference, organisers focused on presenting and honoring the Arab and international guests, while ignoring the Egyptian participants.

The Second Cairo Declaration did not even include the input of Egyptian participants. This raises serious questions about who this conference is supposed to serve, and how it could possibly help Egyptian artists dealing with censorship.

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