First Arabic Netflix film tackles taboos, sparks controversy
CAIRO — A Lebanese father tells his teenage daughter she is free to choose whether to have sex with her boyfriend despite his reservations.
An Egyptian wife discreetly slips off her black, lacy underwear from under her clothes before heading out for dinner, and it’s not her husband she’s trying to tantalize.
And in a dramatic moment, a man reveals that he is gay, a secret he has kept from his longtime friends who are shocked — but seem mostly accepting.
The scenes in the first Arabic Netflix movie have sparked a public drama as intense as the one that plays out onscreen. On social media and TV talk shows and among friends in Egypt and other Middle East countries, a torrent of critics have denounced the film as a threat to family and religious values, encouraging homosexuality and unfit for Arab societies.
Others have rallied to the film’s defense, saying detractors are in denial about what happens behind closed doors in real life. Those who don’t like the movie, they argue, are free to not subscribe to Netflix or simply skip the film.
Titled “Ashab Wala A’azz,” which means “No Dearer Friends,” the movie is an Arabic version of the Italian hit “Perfect Strangers,” which has inspired many other international remakes. It tells the story of seven friends at a dinner party gone wrong after the hostess suggests that, as a game, they agree to share any calls, text and voice messages. As smart phones buzz, secrets are revealed, infidelities are exposed and relationships are tested.
The controversy has re-ignited debates in the region over artistic freedom versus social and religious sensitivities; censorship; what constitutes a taboo in different societies and portrayal of gay characters.
One irony is that Netflix in the Middle East shows many non-Arabic movies and series that feature gay characters in a positive light, premarital and extramarital sex and even nudity — which is typically banned in cinemas in the region — with little outcry.
But to see those themes broached in an Arabic-language movie with Arab actors went too far for some. (The movie has no nudity; it’s largely an hour and half of people talking around a dinner table.)
“I think if it’s a normal foreign movie, I will be ok. But because it’s an Arabic movie, I didn’t accept it,” said 37-year-old Elham, an Egyptian who asked for her last name to be withheld due to the sensitivity of the topic. “We don’t accept the idea of homosexuality or intimate relations before marriage in our society, so what happened was a cultural shock.”
Homosexuality is a particularly strong taboo in Egypt: A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 95% in the country say it should be rejected by society; in Lebanon, that number stood at 80% at the time.
The movie’s cast are mostly prominent Lebanese stars and its events are set in Lebanon. There, it has garnered many positive reviews. Fans said it discussed relatable topics away from stereotypes that are usually attached to gay characters or cheating spouses on screen.
“There’s nothing like the Arab world’s hatred of the truth,” Rabih Farran, a Lebanese journalist, said in a tweet, referring to the backlash.
It’s not the first time that an Arabic-language movie has featured gay characters.
Most famously, the 2006 movie “The Yacoubian Building” with a cast of A-list Egyptian actors caused a stir for, among other things, including a gay main character. But the character was ultimately killed by his lover in what many saw as punishment.
In contrast, the gay character in “Ashab Wala A’azz” is not depicted negatively. Another character encourages him to expose his former employers who let him go for his sexual identity.
Fatima Kamal, a 43-year-old Egyptian, said she didn’t find it to be promoting same-sex relationships. She argued that some Egyptian movies in the past were more daring.
“The movie touched on issues that the society refuses to confront but they do happen,” she said. “We all have a dark side and hidden stories.”
Kamal, who has a 12-year-old son, also dismissed the idea the film would corrupt Arab youth.
“Technology has changed society. Restricting movies is not the answer,” she said. “The solution is to watch based on age ratings and to talk to the young and make them understand that not everything we see on the screen is OK.”
Talking on a popular TV show, Egyptian lawmaker Mostafa Bakry contended Egyptian and Arab family values are being targeted.
“This is neither art nor creativity,” he said. “We must ban Netflix from being in Egypt” even if temporarily.
Magda Maurice, an art critic debating Bakry on the show, disagreed. “This movie exposes what mobile phones do to people and to their normal lives,” she said.
“You cannot ban anything now but you can confront it with good art,” she added. “Banning has become a thing of the past.”
In Egypt, much of the furor focused on the sole Egyptian woman in the cast, Mona Zaki, one of the country’s biggest stars. Her character is the one seen slipping off her underwear, a gesture that many critics decried as scandalous.
In social media, some attacked her for participating in the film. The online abuse extended to actors and actresses who supported her or praised her performance. Some criticized her real-life husband, an Egyptian movie star in his own right, for “allowing” her to play the role.
The Egyptian actors syndicate came out in support of Zaki, saying it will not abide verbal abuse or intimidation against actors over their work. It said that freedom of creativity “is protected and defended by the syndicate,” while adding that it is committed to the values of Egyptian society.
The Associated Press reached out to Netflix for a comment on the controversy but didn’t receive one.
Egypt has long celebrated its cinema industry, which earned it the nickname “Hollywood of the East,” lured actors from other Arabic-speaking countries and brought Egyptian movies and dialect into Arab homes the world over.
Film critic Khaled Mahmoud said Egypt "used to produce powerful and daring movies in the 1960s and 1970s.” But much of that adventurousness has been lost with the trend of so-called “clean cinema,” emphasizing themes deemed family appropriate with no physical intimacy or immodest attire, he added.
“Society has changed, and the viewership culture has become flawed."
Story lines about affairs or sexual relations are not uncommon in Arabic films. But female stars are commonly grilled in interviews over whether they would agree to wear swimsuits or kiss co-stars on camera.
“Our job is to let art be art,” Mahmoud said. “We cannot critique art through a moral lens.”
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.