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Perfect Strangers, Netflix’s first Arabic original feature, has come under intense fire from conservatives across the Middle East within days of its launch on Jan. 20, getting criticized 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 has also received critical acclaim and been strongly defended 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 starring 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 the calls and text messages on their phones available to one another, unveiling various secrets and scandals. While it was expected to become a major talking point and push boundaries — featuring a gay character and other storylines considered taboo and rarely discussed outright on screen in many Middle East countries — few would have anticipated the immediate wave of controversy it would provoke.
On Twitter, the film sparked a barrage of homophobic messages, accused by some of encouraging homosexuality and “moral degradation,” and “putting Western ideas in a conservative society.” One user accused the film of being a “crime,” adding that not only should it be banned but that everyone involved should face “prosecution.”
Recently, films such as Eternals and West Side Story have been blocked from cinemas across much of the Middle East due to their inclusion of LGBTQ issues (even if minor). As a film being 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 has originated in Egypt (Perfect Strangers is an Egyptian co-production), particularly against Zaki, who in one scene of the film removes her underwear (although nothing is seen, as there is no nudity at all). One Twitter user accused Zaki — a huge star in Egypt — of being part of an overseas agenda to force social change.
Spilling outside of social media, Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz claimed that the film was a “plot to disrupt Arab society” and that Zaki was the “champion” of it all. According to reports, Mahfouz — who in 2020 sued the transgender son of Egyptian actor Hesham Selim over an Instagram post he claimed was promoting homosexuality — is now preparing a lawsuit to remove Perfect Strangers from Netflix.
Various Egyptian news sites and the Arabic edition of CNN have also reported that film has even been addressed by Egyptian politician Mustafa Bakri, who in a statement to the speaker of Egypt’s House of Representatives said it “incites homosexuality and betrayal.”
In Egypt, unlike countries in the Gulf, homosexuality isn’t officially illegal, although it is regularly cracked down upon in society.
But with the fiery backlash has come a flood of support for the film, with many people praising both the storyline — for raising real-life topics often ignored — and the production itself, while also criticizing the attitudes of those attacking it.
“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 topics like civilized beings instead of enclosing ourselves in a hypocritical regressive bubble,” said one user. Meanwhile, a hashtag from supporters that translates as #ImAlsoAPerfectStranger has emerged.
One of Egypt’s biggest international stars, Amr Waked, known for roles in Syriana, Lucy and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, tweeted that anyone who was “afraid” that a movie could change their faith didn’t actually have faith. Many other famous names have come forward with their support for the film and it stars, including Hend Sabry, Ahmed Fahmy and Ghada And El Razek.
Meanwhile, the Egypt’s professional actors union issued a statement in solidarity with for the cast of Perfect Strangers, particularly Mona Zaki, calling for the preservation of “creative freedom” and emphasizing the role of the arts in addressing issues in society.
For all the furor, in terms of numbers, Perfect Strangers has been a huge success so far, topping Netflix’s viewing charts in the region and helping underline the drive for more localized content. In France, it’s currently the sixth most popular title on the platform.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to both Netflix and the producers of Perfect Strangers for comment.
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