Netflix’s very first Arabic-language film Perfect strangers was a resounding success in the Middle East when it fell last month.
The film itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking – it’s a remake of a 2016 Italian film and tells the story of a friends dinner party gone wrong as a board game reveals their secrets. deeper.
But since its January 20 release, its themes and depictions of sexuality and malediction have sparked a wave of controversy and intrigue, particularly in Egypt where public outrage and calls from conservative leaders to ban the film have are multiplied.
According to Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim, the backlash reflects an internal standoff in Egypt, as the country struggles to preserve traditional social values while striving to appear open and democratic on the international stage.
So what’s going on here?
The film’s star-studded cast has faced criticism in some quarters since its release, but the harshest backlash has centered on the lone Egyptian actress, Mona Zaki.
“[Zaki] is one of Egypt’s most beloved actresses, who has made a career out of playing the girl-next-door roles,” Fahim told NPR. “It’s the only movie where you really see her come out of its shell.”
Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images
Zaki’s character, Maryam, is a married woman who is revealed to be having an affair, is seen swearing, and in one scene removes her underwear from under her dress (although no nudity was shown ).
Thousands of Egyptians have expressed their dismay online, criticizing her for what they see as a negative portrayal of Egyptian women.
“[Zaki’s role] upset a lot of people who hit the internet and social media attacking her, and attacking her husband and asking him for a divorce. It was madness,” Fahim said.
The backlash against Zaki is tied to deep-rooted issues of misogynism in Egypt, Fahim said, as the most vocal critics were men who could not accept such portrayal of Egyptian women.
The film also drew criticism for the inclusion of a gay character, Rabie, played by Fouad Yammine.
Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images for Netflix
“[He was] be portrayed in a sympathetic way. The movie doesn’t condemn it at all,” Fahim said. “Many conservative commentators saw this as what they called ‘normalization with homosexuality’.”
Homosexuality isn’t technically illegal in Egypt, but it’s still widely condemned in society, and members of the LGBTQ community have been routinely persecuted and abused by Egyptian security forces in recent years, according to a Human Rights report. Watch.
“I think the repression [on the LGBTQ community] can be seen as part of a larger crackdown on free speech,” said Mirette Mabrouk, founding director of the Egypt Program at the US-based Middle East Institute.
“Whether it’s political dissent, artistic freedom, [crackdown] has increased over the last eight or nine years. »
There’s politics at play in the controversy
Fahim says it all ties into broader efforts by the Egyptian government to preserve traditional Islamic values.
“The current regime is trying to push entertainment – in a very patriotic and nationalistic way – to embrace moderate Islamic family values,” he said. “Issues of homosexuality, sexual infidelity and sex positivity are not things that absolutely should not be educated.”
Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images for Netflix
Many in the wider Egyptian film community supported the film and its cast.
Elham Shahin, a famous Egyptian actress who was not involved in the film, appealed to a popular Egyptian talk show to defend it.
“I really don’t know what’s going on anymore. I watched the movie and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” Shahin told Al Hekaya.
In response to the criticism, Netflix stood its ground and released a statement that read:
“Perfect strangers is a fictional story that explores universal themes without taking a moral stand, instead inviting the audience to have open dialogue and debate. The film tackles tough subjects through humanity and humor, led by a talented Arab cast focused on creative excellence.”
Don’t expect the controversy to change anything
Egyptian lawmakers are increasingly concerned about what they see as continued pressure from Netflix.
“This is not the first time that Netflix content has targeted the values and ethics of Egypt and the Arab world,” Mostafa Bakry, a member of the Egyptian House of Representatives, told Al Hekaya. “We should ban Netflix from Egypt.”
Yet given Netflix’s high popularity in the region and Egypt’s desire to save face on the international stage, Fahim believes the Egyptian government is unlikely to take concrete action.
“They want to sound liberal, they want to sound democrat. The last thing they want is to get themselves into a huge headache by banning Netflix in Egypt,” he said.
Mabrouk agrees that condemning Egypt’s political leaders is unlikely to have any real consequences. Instead, she sees it as another example of mobilizing political support by leveraging the latest burning social issue, adding that this is no different from what we see in the United States.
“It’s a kind of very deliberate outrage that is politically expedient,” Mabrouk said. “It’s easy to throw red meat at certain sectors of your society and say, ‘Look, we respect morals. We may not be keeping up with the economy, and we may struggle to maintain a balance of payments, but by God, we are working on the moral side.'”