By Stephen Kalin
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon has banned the screening of a film about homosexuality and another on short-term "pleasure marriages" practised in some Muslim communities, in a blow to its reputation as a bastion of tolerance in a deeply conservative region.
The films, which had been due to be shown at the Beirut International Film Festival that opened last week, were blocked by a government censorship committee, festival organisers said.
Confirming the bans, an Interior Ministry spokesman cited a Lebanese news report which attributed the decision to "obscene scenes of kissing between gay men, philandering, naked men and sexual intercourse between men" in one film and "sex scenes that offend public opinion and obscene language" in the other.
Critics took to local media and the Internet over the weekend to denounce the bans but festival director Colette Naufal said they could only be overturned by the interior minister, a move she considered highly unlikely.
Naufal said the decision represented a step backwards for Lebanon after several years when the festival had been permitted to show controversial films, including one about paedophilia.
"Lebanon has one thing that stands out: its freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of everything," she told Reuters. "That's the difference between Lebanon and the whole of the Middle East."
One of the banned films is "L'Inconnu du Lac" (Stranger by the Lake) from French director Alain Guiraudie, which deals with a homosexual relationship between two men. It was screened this year at Cannes Film Festival.
Homosexuals face discrimination and alienation in Lebanon and have been prosecuted for years under a law forbidding "acts against nature", which judges often interpret as criminalising sex between men.
However, Beirut is also home to a large gay community and a gay tourism industry that includes bars and nightclubs.
Despite its relative liberalism by regional standards, Lebanon has a history of banning films, plays and books that touch on the taboo subjects of sex, religion and politics.
The second film is "I Offered You Pleasure," a 15-minute short about temporary "pleasure marriages", so named because they are often used to circumvent Islamic proscriptions on sex outside of marriage, including prostitution.
Based on interviews with women from Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, the film tells the story of a middle-aged Shi'ite Muslim woman named Iman who is coerced into agreeing to a "pleasure marriage" with her teenage neighbour, Wael.
Director Farah Shaer, 26, told Reuters the film tackles issues of sexual discrimination and the oppression of social traditions but does not contain any graphic sexual images. She said she was surprised that it was banned.
"We all know about pleasure marriage contracts and about premarital sex," she said. "So what if we talk about them in films? Why should that be banned?"
While the film focuses on the Shi'ite community, to which Shaer belongs, she said it is not intended to single out one religious sect, noting that Sunni Muslims engage in a similar practice and Christians in Lebanon often have premarital sex.
The film, which was Shaer's senior project at the Lebanese American University, was screened in Lebanon in 2011 at another university's film festival that falls outside the state's censorship apparatus. It has also been shown at international festivals including France's Clermont-Ferrand festival of short films and the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.
Shaer said she thought the majority of Lebanese supported showing the film but that she had received harsh letters of reproval from critics.
"About a quarter of the people are standing with the ban because they do believe that such taboo subjects shouldn't be talked about, which in my opinion is really sick and really insane," she said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)