It was in 2018 that the film distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment in Dubai announced it was going into film production for the first time. The company teamed up with other production companies to create an Arabic remake of Perfect Strangers. The Italian original was such a big hit that it made history for getting the most remakes in cinema. The Arabic version would be number 19. After delays caused by the pandemic and political instability in Lebanon where the film was set, its production finally wrapped up in 2020. Picked up by Netflix as its first Arabic film, it is now set for release on January 20.
Perfect Strangers brings together a cast of credible Arab actors. For the first time, Academy-Award nominated Nadine Labaki and Egyptian veteran actress Mona Zaki are on screen together, alongside Eyad Nassar, Georges Khabbaz, Adel Karam, Fouad Yammine and Diamand Bou Abboud. The film will undoubtedly be a hit upon its release, but to think that the first Arabic film on Netflix is a remake of an Italian title certainly feels like a rip-off.
In December, Front Row announced its second Arabic remake, this time of French hit The Intouchables which will be set in Egypt. The original film came out in 2011 and became the highest-grossing foreign-language film of the year, taking $426 million at the international box office.
But Front Row isn't the only one banking on international box office hits. Last December, an Arabic adaptation of the Spanish comedy-drama Campeones was screened at the Red Sea International Film Festival. Set in Saudi Arabia, it stars Yassir Al Saggaf, Fatima AlBanawi and Khaled Alharbi, alongside people with special needs. The same month, an Egyptian remake of the American series Suits was also announced. The show, to be written by Mohamed Rady, has Egyptian actor Asser Yassin signed on to play the role of hotshot lawyer Harvey Specter.
There is no doubt that these projects are bringing together some of the best talent from our region. Labaki, Zaki and Yassin are some of the most prominent actors in the Middle East today. And these stories that are being told are strong ones that have found much admiration from audiences around the world. But the question that comes to mind is a simple one: where is the Arab narrative and why is it being neglected in favour of foreign stories? We surely have plenty of our own material to work with.
We might be lagging behind as an industry. We need more screenwriters, cinematographers and producers, but our region's track record in filmmaking has certainly proven that we are capable of telling compelling stories, ones that can also speak to an international audience, and as supporters of Arab cinema, that's exactly what we need to be advocating.
Netflix has already done it with its original Arabic series AlRawabi School for Girls directed by Tima Shomali and written by Shomali, Shirin Kamal and Islam Alshomali.
Streaming majors such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have become the future of television. It's a beast that needs to be fed, a library that has to cater not to only one type of audience, not just Hollywood or Bollywood, but to a global audience. For creatives, this is a golden opportunity. It's a time to demand that the stories from our culture are told in the most authentic way possible.
Lebanese producer Chady Eli Mattar said in a podcast interview once: "If someone writes me a script that starts with a boy and girl who meet at Sky Bar [in Beirut] ...and the story goes from there, I'm producing that film." The point he was trying to make was to take something so simple as a boy-meets-girl moment, and tell it through that specific culture, in this case, Lebanon's.
Mattar's words remind me of Sameh Alaa's Cannes Palme d'Or winner I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face, a powerful story about young love. It is a story that can only exist in Egyptian culture, told in such a moving way that I'm surprised Alaa hasn't been signed on to write the next Arabic Netflix film.
If we have learnt anything from the success of shows such as Squid Game, Lupin and Money Heist, it is that we have a shot not only at telling our native stories but also exporting them to the whole world. We just need to get our executive producers on board and start writing.