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One "liberal" Arab country leaves sex, drugs and often bikinis on the cutting room floor.
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — Deep within the Kuwait Ministry of Information’s sprawling, high-security complex, seven government films censors gather for a screening of "The Last Song," a drama starring Miley Cyrus. Seated in plush velvet seats in front of a large, cinema-style screen, the censors graze on soft drinks and snacks while attendants circle the theater, refilling drinks and serving sandwiches.
It feels like a typical, lazy, weekday matinee — until Cyrus leaps into the arms of her co-star and leans in for a long and passionate kiss. Watching the screen, the censors drop their sandwiches and reach for the white buttons attached to their armrest, activating a bell and flashing light. The bell alerts John Prasard, working upstairs in the cinema’s projection room, to cut the scene. He stores the offending frames on a crowded cabinet shelf; stocked with illicit scenes, the cabinet is a trove of steamy embraces and blasphemous talk.
In the Arabian Gulf, abundant petrodollars buy easy access to the Western world as well as the ability to resist foreign influences. The tiny gulf nation of Kuwait embodies this dichotomy; it has pursued a path that combines political liberalism with cultural conservatism, boasting the region’s most powerful parliament while also remaining heavily influenced by the Wahhabi ideology of neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Censorship policies within the country reflect these dual forces. In 2009, the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House ranked Kuwait second in the region — and first among the Arab states — in its annual freedom of the press survey. Yet Kuwait also enforces some of the most stringent film censorship regulations in the world. “No strong violence, sex, kissing, drugs, black magic,” explained Qannas al Adwani, a government film censor. “If there are a lot of bikinis, we will not allow it.”
Every film that is going to be screened publicly in Kuwait must first be cycled through the Ministry of Information’s cinema, and government censors watch hundreds of films a year. The list of offensive material is long and ambiguous, and standards are often unevenly applied. One Bahraini film was left uncut for its first showing but censored for a second viewing, and sexual innuendo is often translated literally, leaving highly explicit dialogue intact for public screenings.
Even American films portraying the United States in a negative light can be grounds for prohibition. “Don’t forget one fact: that the Kuwait people are very thankful to the Americans for the U.S. support for liberating Kuwait,” said Kuwaiti censor Ahmed bin Yacoub. “They still have it inside of them, and they don’t want to show anything that really hurts the American people.”
As a result of the censors’ efforts, attending the cinema in Kuwait can be a frustrating endeavor.