Film as a medium has only existed for a little over a century and has been the subject of controversy the entire time. While burning film reels has never caught on as a visual shorthand for censorship, movies have been a target of restriction from the get-go. Reasons for banning films tend to be either political or in efforts to prevent a perceived corrupting influence. For example, the Hays Code, which was enforced from 1930 to 1968, placed tight restrictions on the content of films in the U.S., banning things like nudity, profanity, “excessive or lustful kissing,” childbirth and “sex relationships between the white and black races” among other things. Cases of films being banned for political reasons are far too numerous to list.
For the most part, there is at least a logic to it. A logic that only horrible people would use, but at least it makes sense in terms of preventing whatever it is the censors are trying to prevent. Sometimes, however, this can get downright petty, and in other cases, it’s hard to believe the leaps in logic leading to a film being banned or otherwise censored. See the global examples below.
Banned in: Iran
Reason: Negative portrayal of Persians.
“300” is a 2006 movie about men in leather Speedos fighting a bunch of men who aren’t in Speedos and how they won because of their superior abdominal muscles. It is also an adaptation of a comic book written by Frank Miller, which was itself loosely based on the Battle of Thermopylae between the ancient Greeks and Persians. I say “loosely” because the Persian king is eleven feet tall, his elite troops are literal demons and Leonidas is Scottish for some reason. Some people liked it, some people didn’t, but nobody who hasn’t burst something in their head thinks it is historically accurate.
It is safe to say that most people who saw the movie didn’t take it seriously. People in Iran, on the other hand, apparently took it very seriously. The general sentiment from both the people and government of that nation is that the brainless action movie is actually a piece of propaganda designed to convince Americans that Iranians, the cultural descendants of Persians, are savage barbarians that need to be destroyed.
Granted, the film does come across as a bit racist and goes out of its way to ignore all the terrible things Spartans got up to. Still, it’s a bit like if Italy was outraged whenever ancient Rome is portrayed negatively.
2. “The Simpsons Movie”
Banned in: Myanmar/Burma
Reason: Too much yellow.
Burma, now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, had been under military rule from the 1960s until 2011. During that time, government sensors were very strict about what films released in the country could show, to the point where they effectively destroyed the Burmese film industry. The censors were infamously paranoid, one interpreting an empty chair to be a reference to the deposed former prime minister. “The Simpsons Movie” received similar treatment, being banned for its use of the colors yellow and red.
Around the same time the ban went into effect, Burma was in the midst of the Saffron Revolution, a series of protests that began after a sharp increase in gas prices and eventually resulted in calls for the ousting of the military government. The name is in reference to the robes of Buddhist monks, who played a significant role in inciting the populace against the ruling junta. While they never said as much, it seems as though the thinking of the Burmese government went something like this: Some monks have yellow in their robes, monks oppose the government, the Simpsons are yellow, so watching “The Simson’s Movie” will make people oppose the government.
Banned in: Finland and Mexico in the 1950s
Reason: Encourages safecracking.
Winner of Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, “Rififi” is the oldest film on this list. A product of the latter days of the film noir golden age, it is arguably the progenitor of the heist movie genre. It follows a group of thieves who plot an elaborate jewel heist only for things to go horribly wrong because there’s no accounting for the human element.
The film’s centerpiece is a lengthy and highly detailed portrayal of a safe cracking—a scene that was apparently so realistic that Finland and Mexico banned the film, fearing that it both encouraged and provided instruction in the cracking of safes. The film’s director argued that “Rififi” actually showed how difficult it was to get away with a crime, but his defense fell on deaf ears, no doubt preventing legions of upstanding Mexicans and Fins from turning to a life of crime.
4. “Wonder Woman”
Banned in: Lebanon, Qatar and Tunisia
Reason: Lead role is Israeli.
This would be the petty reason mentioned all the way back in the second paragraph. In case anyone reading this has just emerged from a lost underground civilization, “Wonder Woman” is a movie about an Amazonian beating up Aries, the god of war, in order to stop World War I. It is also about Warner Brothers trying to recoup their losses from two consecutive flops. Seeing as “Wonder Woman” actually has a political message, even if it is as simple as “war is bad; don’t do it,” one might be tempted to think that its ethical posturing was the reason for the ban. It isn’t though, nor is it anything to do with having a female lead or her outfit being too revealing for the local culture. (None of those countries have strict dress codes for women and headscarves are actually illegal in Tunisia.) No, the reason is that Gal Gadot, the actress portraying Wonder Woman, is Israeli.
You see, hypothetical mole person, Israel and the rest of the Middle East don’t exactly have a harmonious relationship. Nothing about the movie takes a position on the ongoing tensions in the region. It’s not like the film is an Israeli product, so there’s no strategic political reason for imposing the ban. No, it’s because an actress, presumably cast because the studio wanted someone who could pass as Greek, is from a country they’re feuding with.
Censorship is never a good thing, especially in a democratic society like some of those mentioned above are supposed to be. These examples might not seem that serious, but they demonstrate how paranoid and jumpy governments can be when it comes to rooting out “subversive ideas.” All art, even low art, has a right to exist, and acting otherwise is treading on a very slippery slope indeed.