Perfect strangers, Netflix’s first Arabic original feature film, was heavily criticized by Middle Eastern conservatives days after its Jan. 20 launch, slammed by an Egyptian politician and accused of, among other things, perversion, promoting homosexuality and infidelity and even being part of a plot to disrupt Arab society. But at the same time, it was also critically acclaimed and strongly championed by the artistic community and beyond.
The film – the latest in a long line of international remakes of the 2016 Italian hit Perfect strangers and featuring Capernaum writer-director Nadine Labaki and Egyptian star Mona Zaki – tells the story of a group of friends in Lebanon who one night play a game where they make all calls and texts available on their phones, revealing various secrets and scandals. While it was supposed to become a major talking point and push the boundaries – featuring a gay character and other storylines considered taboo and rarely discussed on screen in many Middle Eastern countries – few would have anticipated the immediate wave of controversy it would cause.
On Twitter, the film unleashed an avalanche of homophobic messages, accused by some of encouraging homosexuality and “moral degradation”, and of “putting Western ideas into a conservative society”. One user accused the film of being a “crime”, adding that not only should it be banned, but everyone involved should face “prosecution”.
Recently, movies like Eternals and West Side Story have been blocked from cinemas across much of the Middle East due to their inclusion of LGBTQ issues (even though they are underage). As a film streamed online, however, Perfect strangers didn’t need to go through regional censors and was able to land on Netflix uncut.
Much of the anger originated in Egypt (Perfect strangers is an Egyptian co-production), in particular against Zaki, who in one scene of the film takes off his underwear (although nothing is seen, as there is no nudity at all). A Twitter user has accused Zaki – a big star in Egypt – of being part of an overseas scheme to force social change.
Outside of social media, Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz claimed the film was a “plot to disrupt Arab society” and that Zaki was the “champion” of it all. Mahfouz – who in 2020 sued the transgender son of Egyptian actor Hesham Selim over an Instagram post he said promoted homosexuality – is now preparing a lawsuit to withdraw, according to reports. Perfect strangers from Netflix.
Various Egyptian news sites and the Arabic edition of CNN also reported that the film was even addressed by Egyptian politician Mustafa Bakri, who in a statement to the speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives said that he ” incites homosexuality and betrayal”.
In Egypt, unlike the Gulf countries, homosexuality is not officially illegal, although it is regularly repressed in society.
But with the fiery backlash came an outpouring of support for the film, with many praising both the script – for raising real-life topics that are often overlooked – and the production itself, while criticizing the attitudes of those who attack him.
“Arabs losing their minds over a movie that shows cheating spouses, teenagers being teenagers, gay characters; makes me realize that we are not 1% close to discussing subjects like civilized beings instead of locking ourselves in a hypocritical regressive bubble, ”said a user. Meanwhile, a fan hashtag that translates to #ImAlsoAPerfectStranger has emerged.
One of Egypt’s biggest international stars, Amr Waked, known for his roles in Syriac, Lucy and Salmon fishing in Yemen, tweeted that anyone who was “afraid” that a movie might change their faith didn’t really have faith. Many other famous names have lent their support to the film and its stars including Hend Sabry, Ahmed Fahmy and Ghada And El Razek.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian Professional Actors Union released a statement of solidarity with the cast of Perfect Strangers, in particular Mona Zaki, calling for the preservation of “creative freedom” and highlighting the role of the arts in solving problems. of society.
Despite all the fury, in terms of numbers, Perfect strangers has been a huge success so far, topping Netflix’s viewing charts in the region and helping to underscore the drive for more localized content. In France, it is currently the sixth most popular title on the platform.
The Hollywood Reporter contacted both Netflix and the producers of Perfect strangers for comment.
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