A neglected wife sexing a stranger, a newly married man having multiple affairs, and a sympathetic gay man finally coming out to old friends.
These are the main story lines in Perfect strangersthe first Arabic-language film produced by Netflix, which has topped the platform’s most-watched charts in Arab countries as far apart as Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia since its January 20 release.
But the remake of the Italian film, which sees diners sharing the messages they receive on their mobile phones over the course of an evening, has sparked riots in Egypt, prompted calls to ban Netflix and sparked a backlash against Mona Zaki, its Egyptian star .
In socially conservative Egypt – as elsewhere in the Arab world – part of public opinion has long been suspicious of what is considered a Western conspiracy to spread moral corruption.
Mostafa Bakry, a pro-regime member of the Egyptian parliament, recently made an “urgent statement” to the assembly that spoke out against the film and called on the government to block Netflix. He portrayed the film as an attempt by Western enemies to “destabilize” Arab countries.
“When a film like this comes, an exact copy of an Italian film without any respect for Egyptian and Arab morals and values… When it defends homosexuality, when more than 20 obscene words are used… When I watch this, is I fully realize that the Egyptian and Arab families are being affected, he said in a television interview.
Al-Azhar, a prestigious Islamic religious institution that is influential throughout the Sunni Muslim world, has also weighed in. Without mentioning the film, it said in a statement that “rebelling against virtue and turning against the healthy values of society… Is not freedom, liberation or creativity, but corruption. [and] the weakening of society ”.
In most Arab countries, movies are censored before distribution to ensure that they do not promote breaches of common family values, but Netflix can stream content into people’s homes without being investigated.
Although the film has no graphic scenes, many see it as an attack on Arab social norms. For example, the gay man in the film is not avoided by his friends, and a father tells his 18-year-old daughter over the phone that she is free to decide if she wants to spend the night with her boyfriend. Netflix has not commented on the uprising.
Defenders of the film have noted that Egyptian cinema, an industry with a long and rich history, has previously dealt with marital infidelity and highlighted gay characters. But these films generally emphasized the importance of common family values.
The shock this time, some say, comes from the “normalization” of behavior seen in Arab societies as deviant. “It’s not good to show anything but to offer no solutions,” said Ghada Youssef, a retired banker. “No conscience awakens, no one withdraws from their paths, and no one is punished at all. The film should have had a message. ”
Ghada Shahbender, a screenwriter and human rights activist, said public criticism partly reflected the emergence of “pure cinema” in Egypt, which avoids insulting conservative values.
“All the secrets revealed by the film are found in Arab societies and across all classes, but there is this duality that makes people refuse to acknowledge it,” she said. She also argued that since the advent of the Internet in Arab countries, public discourse on art had been driven by popular views on social media rather than “elitist” critics.
The wave of anger has been particularly directed at Zaki, who has mostly played “pure” roles in the past, but shocked his fans by acting like a wife exchanging sexy lyrics with a stranger.
Other stars have rushed to her defense, and the Actors Guild has issued a statement warning that they “will not stand by and take no action against a verbal attack or attempt to intimidate an Egyptian actor as a result of work, to which they have contributed “.
Defenders of the film have said that those who were offended only needed to cancel their Netflix subscriptions. Some prominent voices have also argued that a more important factor is the film’s artistic merit.
“It’s completely wrong to judge a film from a moral perspective,” Elham Shahin, a great Egyptian star, said on a talk show.