CAIRO — In one of the opening scenes, a Lebanese mother confronts her 17-year-old daughter after discovering two condoms in her purse. A few minutes later, an Egyptian woman sneakily takes off her underwear just before leaving for dinner with her husband.
Fast forward to the tense moment (spoiler alert!): an Arab man, who is part of a group of close friends, turns out to be gay.
These scenes from the Arabic-language remake of the Italian film “Perfect Strangers” are rife with contention. But the real drama exploded upon its release on Netflix on January 20, sparking a storm of critics blasting the film for flouting moral standards. But more moderate voices, including famous actors, writers and social media influencers, rushed to defend him.
“This film carries messages that serve as a trial balloon for ideas that are foreign to us,” said Tamer Amin, a popular late-night host on Egyptian television. “If we allow these thoughts and poisons to spread, all morality will be lost.”
The polarizing reaction to the film, the first Arab film made by Netflix, reflected a culture war between the religious establishment and audiences in much of the Arab world and the often youthful liberal forces who converged on social media and use technology and the alternative. channels to evade strict censorship, reach wider audiences and fuel change.
The film revolves around seven Lebanese and Egyptian friends who meet for dinner and agree to openly share the texts and calls they receive that evening, exposing a cascade of secrets and affairs. Some posts revealed that one of the friends was gay, and the film humanizes the character by unveiling some of his friends’ homophobic reactions.
Conservatives across the region — particularly in Egypt, home to the actress who starred in the “underwear scene,” as she became known — argued the film diluted Arab and Muslim identities by projecting Western standards and a bright, liberal lifestyle. who are out of step with the morals of a largely reserved and religious population.
Some critics have gone so far as to suggest the film was the product of an alien plot that used social media and streaming sites to normalize teen sex, promiscuity and homosexuality in an effort to undermine cohesion. social and family values.
But advocates said the film invites honest conversation about universally relatable issues like sexual desire and infidelity — topics that in the Arab world are largely taboo, often shunned in public, and barely discussed in social media. state-regulated media.
“It’s as if these stories can only exist abroad,” said Lubna Qadoumi, 42, a single working mother from Jordan. She recalled how Netflix also came 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, attributed some of the outrage to panic over a changing landscape caused by foreign streaming services that regularly push boundaries and deal with themes like sex and sexuality. .
“The fight is not so much about the film as it is about morality and religion and what should and shouldn’t be,” he said.
With enough exposure, Mr. el-Shennawi added, people are forced to open up and accept various representations of the other.
“It’s a struggle, and you don’t know where the majority really stands,” he said. “But social change doesn’t happen overnight.”
In a possible indication of this change, in its first week on Netflix, “Perfect Strangers” rose to No. 1 in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait and to No. ° 5 of the Top 10 of the site. list of non-english movies worldwide.
Mr. el-Shennawi narrated countless Arabic films – beloved classics dating back as far as the 1950s – that embraced racy plots with fewer reservations.
One, “The Leech,” a 1956 Egyptian drama that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, revolved around a woman’s relentless drive to seduce her lover. Actresses of the time wore miniskirts, kissed on screen, and agreed to scripts that contained sexual scenes and innuendo.
But since the 1980s and 1990s, a rise in religious conservatism has pervaded state and civil institutions across much of the Arab world and prompted the vast majority of Muslim women to cover their hair. This brought about a new trend in filmmaking known as “clean cinema”.
One of the main stars of the clean film era was Mona Zaki, an Egyptian celebrity who rose to fame in the 1990s, often playing the role of the good girl next door. She starred in the Arabic version of ‘Perfect Strangers’ as an emotionally wronged wife who was caught up in a loveless marriage and slipped off her underwear as she exchanged sex texts with a man she had. met online.
Criticism of the jarring change in Ms. Zaki’s character choice fueled much of the anger over the film.
“The attack targeted Mona Zaki because Arab societies and institutions saw her as the Arab woman who belonged to them,” said Reem Alrudaini, head of the women’s and gender studies research unit at the University. from Kuwait. “Now it was like, no, she cannot represent our women.
Ms Alrudaini said that, in a sense, Ms Zaki’s evolution as an actress and changing perceptions around her signaled a broader repudiation of the religious and conservative forces that had long dominated society and discouraged traditional actors to accept roles where a woman would be expressly sexual or where a man could be gay.
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A few days after the release of “Perfect Strangers” in Arabic, the Egyptian Actors Syndicate, a professional union, issued a strong statement saying it would support Ms. Zaki and all Egyptian artists against verbal abuse, intimidation or harassment. reprisals. He highlighted the organization’s role in protecting creative freedom and described the country as a “civil state”, signing “Long live an enlightened Egypt”.
Despite this endorsement, the war of words raged on, underscoring the delicate line that liberal artists are still forced to toe.
“As an artist, you always negotiate what you can and can’t say, and what you can and can’t do,” said Mohamed el-Hag, an Egyptian television and film scriptwriter.
Introducing a sympathetic gay character may have crossed what conservatives — and many moderates — in the region consider a red line.
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, is prohibited in some Arab countries and is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In several countries where it is not technically illegal, homosexuals can still be prosecuted under laws that criminalize “debauchery”, “indecency” or “immorality”.
In Egypt, undercover police investigators routinely troll online chat rooms and dating apps to trap gay men, and in 2017 authorities arrested activists for raising a rainbow flag. rainbow during an indie rock concert where the Lebanese singer was known to be openly gay.
Ever since the release of “Perfect Strangers,” its producers and cast members have remained silent lest their appearance elicit further opposition.
Last month, Al Azhar, Egypt’s central religious authority, warned people against work to ‘normalize homosexuality’, and reposted a formal religious opinion that considered homosexuality a sin “reprehensible”.
“Netflix promotes homosexuality,” said Mostafa Bakry, a member of Egypt’s parliament, who filed an official call to action against the film. “I want the government to take the necessary steps to ban the kind of work that contradicts our customs and traditions.”
Mr. Bakry launched a similar action in 2006 after the release of an Egyptian film which also tackled the subject of homosexuality. He collected 122 supporting signatures from more than 550 members of parliament.
This time, he managed to get only one in addition to his own.