Netflix’s First Arabic Movie

CAIRO – In one of the opening scenes, a Lebanese mother confronts her 17-year-old daughter after discovering two condoms in her purse. Minutes later, an Egyptian wife surreptitiously took off her panties right before going out to dinner with her husband.

Fast-forward to a time of high tension (spoiler alert!): An Arab man, who is part of a group of close friends, is revealed to be gay.

These scenes from the Arabic remake of the Italian film “Perfect Strangers” are full of conflict. But the film really exploded shortly after its release on Netflix on January 20, sparking a storm of criticism that accused the film of violating ethical standards. But more moderate voices, including famous actors, writers and social media influencers, rushed to defend it.

Tamer Amin, a popular late-night presenter on Egyptian TV, said: “This film carries messages like a hot air balloon for ideas foreign to us. “If we let these thoughts and poisons run rampant, all morality will be lost.”

The polarizing reaction to the film, the first Arabic film made by Netflix, reflects a culture war between the religious establishment and the public across the Arab world and often youthful liberal forces have converged on social media and are using technology and alternative channels to evade control. rigorous browsing, reach a wider audience, and drive change.

The film revolves around seven Lebanese and Egyptian friends who gather for dinner and agree to publicly share the messages and calls they received that evening, exposing a series of secrets and incidents. Some text messages reveal that one of the friends is gay, and the film humanizes the character by shedding light on the homophobic reactions of some of his friends.

Conservatives across the region – especially in Egypt, where the actress starred in the “underwear scene”, as it was known – argued that the film diluted Arab and Muslim identities. religion by projecting Western standards and a flashy liberal lifestyle. out of sync with the morals of a largely religious and reserved population.

Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that the film is the product of a foreign plot to use social media and streaming sites to normalize underage sex, promiscuity, and sexual abuse. promiscuity and homosexuality to undermine social cohesion and family values.

But defenders say the film invites honest conversation about globally relevant issues such as sexual desire and infidelity – topics that, in the Arab world, are largely forbidden. taboo, often shunned from the public and barely mentioned in the state-controlled media.

“It’s as if these stories could only exist abroad,” said Lubna Qadoumi, 42, a single working mother from Jordan. She recalls how Netflix also went under fire in Jordan a few years ago for a series about a group of Jordanian teenagers and their romantic entanglements.

“Some people just want to close their eyes and not look around,” she said.

Tarek el-Shennawi, a prominent Egyptian film critic, attributes part of the outrage to panic over a changing landscape caused by foreign streaming services regularly pushing boundaries and handle topics like sex and sexuality.

“The fight is not about the movie but about morality and religion and what should and shouldn’t be,” he said.

Mr. el-Shennawi added, if people are exposed enough, they must be open and accepting of diverse portrayals of the other person.

“It’s a struggle, and you don’t know where the majority really stand,” he said. “But social change doesn’t happen overnight.”

In a possible sign of that change, in its first week of airing on Netflix, “Perfect Strangers” jumped to number 1 in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait and up to 5th place in the Top 10 of the website. worldwide list of non-English movies.

Mr. el-Shennawi recounts countless Arabic films – beloved classics from the 1950s – that include bold plots with less reservations.

One, “The Leech”, a 1956 Egyptian TV series that entered the Cannes Film Festival, revolved around a woman’s relentless actions to seduce her lover. Actresses of the time wore miniskirts, kissed on screen, and accepted scenarios with sexual and innuendo scenes.

But since the 1980s and 1990s, a rise in religious conservatism has pervaded states and civil institutions across the Arab world, and has caused the vast majority of Muslim women to cover their hair. . This has brought about a new trend in film making known as “clean cinema”.

One of the leading stars of the clean cinema era was Mona Zaki, an Egyptian celebrity who rose to fame in the 1990s, often playing the role of a girl standing next to him. She starred in the Arabic version of “Perfect Strangers” as an emotionally distressed wife caught in a loveless marriage and had her panties ripped off when she exchanged sexual messages. with a man she met online.

Criticisms about Zaki’s jarring change in character choice sparked much of the anger in the film.

“The attack targeted Mona Zaki because Arab organizations and societies see her as an Arab woman belonging to the Arab world,” said Reem Alrudaini, head of the research unit on women and gender at the University of Kuwait. about them. “Now, it’s like, no, she cannot represent our women. ”

Ms. Alrudaini said that in some respects, Ms. Zaki’s evolution as an actress and the shifting perceptions around her signal a broader rejection of religious and religious forces. conservatives have long dominated society and discouraged main actors from taking on roles where a woman would be explicitly portrayed. sex or where a man may be gay.

A few days after the release of “Perfect Strangers” in Arabic, the Egyptian Actors Association, a professional union, released a strong statement that they will support Ms. Zaki and all the artists. Egypt resists attack, threats or verbal punishment. It emphasizes the organization’s role in protecting creative freedom and describes the country as a “civil nation,” denoted by “Long Live Enlightened Egypt.”

Despite that endorsement, the war of words rages on, underscoring the thin line that libertarian artists are still forced to tread.

“As an artist, you are always negotiating what you can and cannot say, and what you can and cannot ignore,” said Mohamed el-Hag, an Egyptian film and television scriptwriter. said.

The characterization of a sympathetic gay figure may have crossed what conservatives – and many moderates – in the region see as a red line.

Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, is outlawed in some Arab countries, and is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Best. In some countries where it is not technically illegal, homosexuals can still be prosecuted under laws that criminalize “debauchery”, “indecent” or “immoral”.

In Egypt, undercover police officers have a history of trolling online chat rooms and dating apps to seduce gay men, and in 2017 authorities arrested activists for raised a rainbow flag at an indie-rock concert where the Lebanese lead singer was known. Public Starry: v.

Since the release of “Perfect Strangers,” the film’s producers and cast have kept quiet for fear that their appearance might provoke more outcry.

Last month, Al Azhar, Egypt’s central religious authority, warned people against working with the aim of “normalizing homosexuality” and it retweeted an official religious view that Homosexuality is a “reprehensible” sin.

“Netflix is ​​promoting homosexuality,” said Mostafa Bakry, a member of the Egyptian Parliament who filed a formal call for action against the film. “I want the government to take the necessary measures to ban this kind of work that is contrary to our customs and traditions.”

Mr. Bakry made a similar move in 2006 after the release of an Egyptian film that also dealt with homosexuality. He has collected 122 signatures in support of more than 550 members of Congress.

This time, he only managed to get one in addition to his own. Netflix’s First Arabic Movie

Fry Electronics Team

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