x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Biennial denies claims of censorship

The Sharjah Art Foundation decided not to screen the film after lawyers warned it may contravene blasphemy laws.

SHARJAH // The organisers of the Sharjah Biennial have denied claims they exercised "unwarranted censorship" by dropping a controversial documentary from the art event's line-up.

The Sharjah Art Foundation said it decided not to screen the film by the American-Iranian director Caveh Zahedi after lawyers warned it may contravene blasphemy laws.

The foundation's director, Jack Persekian, said the film ridiculed his staff, exploited children and made a mockery of Islam.

Zahedi was paid US$15,000 (Dh55,000) by the foundation to make Plot for a Biennial. The organisation paid his travel and accommodation costs when he visited Sharjah in December to shoot it. "I received an e-mail from the director of the Sharjah Art Foundation informing me - only days before the event - that an 'irreversible decision' had been made not to screen my film at the Biennial, and that my presence at the Biennial was 'not required'," he said.

"The purported basis for banning the film appears to be a legal memorandum received from the foundation's UAE-based counsel, which referred to potential risks arising from local blasphemy laws. But that assertion seems unsupportable because the scene in question, which involved children dancing, could not reasonably be construed to violate any legitimate law or raise any proper theological concern."

However, Mr Persekian said the decision to drop the film, a documentary about the Biennial which was to have been screened in mid-March, was taken solely because of the risk of prosecution. He said scenes juxtaposing shots of children with an inappropriate soundtrack would offend Muslims, and a prosecutor might regard this as blasphemy.

One scene showed children dancing and throwing their shoes in the air, overdubbed with the call to prayer. Another showed the children kneeling for prayer to the sound of a Bollywood song.

"This is a completely twisted way of taking the meaning of things and twisting it under the pretext of freedom of speech, and under the pretext that he has the right to do whatever he wants with whomever he wants," Mr Persekian said. "There were parts that were sheer mockery of our staff and quite exploitative of some Indian minors who hang around the museum."

Zahedi was also accused of cultural insensitivity after filming women as they worked at the Biennial's offices. Lara Khaldi, the foundation's assistant director of programmes, said: "Mr Zahedi … was filming without permission sometimes, so we said 'please stop the camera', but he kept it rolling. He invaded the privacy of the local community."

The foundation's lawyer said in a letter that some of the film's content risked provoking action by prosecutors. "The evaluation of what constitutes blasphemy is impacted by highly subjective decisions of the public prosecutors viewing each particular case and so it is difficult to conclude with 100 per cent certainty whether the content in this case would be deemed to be illegal," said the letter.

"It is our considered opinion, however, that the content poses too great a risk of being deemed to be a violation to be ignored."

Mr Persekian added: "I don't want to get arrested, I don't want to get my employees arrested and I don't want to get these innocent kids who are acting in the film arrested for Mr Zahedi's freedom of expression. I made it very clear to him that my objection was to him exploiting my employees and exploiting minors in acts that might constitute blasphemy."

But Zahedi accused the organisers of violating his artistic freedoms. "I believe that the unwarranted censorship of my film based upon erroneous assertions of purported 'blasphemy' is a pretext to thwart established principles of freedom of expression," he said in an e-mail.

Zahedi has a colourful past. He once moved to Switzerland, hoping to work with Jean-Luc Godard, but the French director refused to see him after he phoned at 3am to offer his filmmaking services, according to Zahedi's website. He later worked on a music video about the 1980s band Talking Heads that was rejected by the lead singer, David Byrne. His other works include a film entitled I Am a Sex Addict.

csimpson@thenational.ae