Perfect Strangers (Ashab Wala A’azz), the first-ever Arabic film made by Netflix, has set off a wave of controversy across the Middle East, as critics contend that plot elements of the film, including homosexuality and infidelity, violate regional cultural values.
The film has sparked anger amongst conservatives who took offence to several plot lines, although it is the character who identifies as gay who has been the target of the most outrage.
The film, a remake of the 2016 Italian film of the same name, stars Muna Zaki, Nadine Labaki, Eyad Nassar, Adel Karam and Georges Khabbaz, all of whom are major stars in the Middle East.
Zaki has also been the target of a wave of online abuse as a result of appearing in the film. Zaki is shown in one scene removing her underwear, although no nudity is present in the entirety of the film.
Not everyone has objected to Zaki’s appearance in the film, with one Twitter user saying, “muna zaki is killing it. i dont care if her role is appropriate or not, the fact that i believed what she was saying and feeling is enough.”
muna zaki is killing it. i dont care if her role is appropriate or not, the fact that i believed what she was saying and feeling is enough. تمثيلها يخرّع.
— مضاوي الجيماز (@mudhaweee) January 24, 2022
Khabbaz, speaking with The National, said, “This is a social film. It touches upon the problems of youth, and of family. It encourages openness and transparency between parents and their children. I’m happy with this film because in the Arab world, communications are a bit closed off between the two generations.”
Film at Centre of Heated Online Debate Over Content
Social media was awash with discussions of the film’s content, with one user on Twitter saying, “Netflix, the company responsible for producing films, has a desire to spread some deviant ideas and wants to allow us to normalize these false ideas. I ask everyone to keep their principle and not consider these ideas.”
Netflix, the company responsible for producing films, has a desire to spread some deviant ideas and wants to allow us to normalize these false ideas.
I ask everyone to keep their principle and not consider these ideas.#اصحاب_ولا_اعز pic.twitter.com/YgZLUKBI85
— Momen Othman (@MomennOthmann) January 22, 2022
Another user tweeted, “If you are bothered by the movie perfect strangers… you are either one of two: you live inside of a bubble [or] you are a hypocrite.”
If you are bothered by the movie perfect strangers اصحاب ولا اعز, you are either one of two
1- you live inside of a bubble
2- you are a hypocrite
99.7% are hypocrites
— J. (@CertifiedFreakJ) January 23, 2022
Egyptian Politicians Speak Out Against Film
Khaled Abdel Jalil, the Head of the Censorship Authority for Artistic Works in Egypt, told Daily News Egypt that because the film is Lebanese, it cannot be banned, but added, “I have not seen the film, but of course any scenes that violate the values, traditions, and strict censorship standards in Egypt will not be allowed.”
The Arabic outlet of CNN has also reported that Egyptian politician Moustafa Bakri, in a statement directed to the Egyptian House of Representatives, said the film “encourages homosexuality and treason.”
Ayman Mahfouz, an Egyptian lawyer who has previously attacked content which he claimed promoted homosexuality, is threatening to file a lawsuit against Netflix. He claims the film is a “conspiracy to disrupt Arab society” and contends that the film’s star Muna Zaki was the “master” of the plan.
Homosexuality in Egypt is not technically illegal, although authorities often harass the LGBTQ community and public acceptance amongst Egyptians is very low. LGBTQ people are often subject to arbitrary arrest and torture, according to Human Rights Watch.
Perfect Strangers is about a group of friends in Beirut who gather for a party and, during the evening, put their phones on the table, allowing everyone else full access to all their texts, calls and voice messages. The game goes on to expose the secrets and lies of all the partygoers.
This Arabic version of Perfect Strangers is the latest in a long line of international remakes of the original film. The film has been remade 18 times, with Spanish, Greek, French, Korean, Mexican, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese versions, amongst others.
The film premiered on the streaming service on January 20.
Despite the intense controversy surrounding the film, Perfect Strangers has done extremely well in terms of viewership and ranks as one of the most-watched titles in the region. In fact, in Egypt, where the controversy over the film is particularly heated, the film is now sitting atop Netflix viewer charts.
Film is latest to Arouse Anger in Middle East Due to Content
Perfect Strangers is the latest in a string of films that have courted controversy due to content that runs counter to cultural norms in the region.
Steven Spielberg’s version of West Side Story ran afoul of censors due to the presence of a transgender character, and Eternals also courted controversy due to its inclusion of a gay character who is married to another man and who share a child.
Disney, who distributed both films, refused to make cuts as requested by regional censor boards to either film. West Side Story, as a result, failed to screen in the Middle East, while Eternals was released with a region-specific cut of the film, dropping any hint of romantic content.