Why Netflix's Honeymoonish director thinks the Middle East needs more rom-coms

Lebanese filmmaker Elie El Semaan says we are all romantic comedy fans deep down inside, especially after the project became the first Arab film to hit number one globally on the platform

Honeymoonish is currently the most watched non-English show on Netflix. Photo: Netflix
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The modern Arab rom-com genre has officially made its mark.

Honeymoonish is the first Arab film to reach number one on Netflix's weekly Top 10 chart of the most-watched non-English TV films, accumulating 14 million views in its second week of release.

It is a surprising and exciting result for the cast, crew and particularly for Lebanese director Elie El Semaan, considering it is his first film.

“I'm very happy,” El Semaan tells The National. “The feedback we were getting from day one was bigger than I expected, to be honest. And not only from the Gulf region but from all over the world.”

The film has been on Netflix’s Top 10 list in more than 70 countries, including across the Middle East, finding audiences as far away as Canada, Sweden and Nigeria.

Starring Kuwaiti actor Mahmoud Boushahri and Egyptian actress Nour Al Ghandour, Honeymoonish depicts their characters entering a marriage under false pretences.

Hamad (Boushahri), ambitious but cynical and under familial pressure to marry, and Noor (Al Ghandour), seeking revenge on her ex, hastily tie the knot.

As they navigate their new relationship, a shocking revelation emerges: they may be considered “milk siblings” under Islamic law due to a shared nursing caregiver. With their feelings growing for each other, Hamad struggles to keep this secret from Noor while his family investigates.

El Semaan believes the film's light fairytale-esque element, injected with a slapstick brand of humour, is what resonates with audiences, especially given what is happening around the world at the moment.

“With everything the world is going through right now and with the style of drama that we're seeing on TV and on platforms in the Middle East at the moment, it's all action and killing and kidnapping,” he says.

“I think people are tired of that because we're seeing a lot of it in real life anyway. I personally feel the Middle East and the world in general needs this genre at the moment.”

Rom-coms have always enjoyed universal appeal. Whether it's due to the stress-free viewing experience, charismatic leads or the absurd scenarios characters find themselves in, the genre has been an integral part of cultural experiences.

Honeymoonish attempts to take the ingredients that have made the modern rom-com, from Pretty Woman to Anyone But You, into such staple viewing – but with an Arab twist.

“One of the rules of rom-coms [is that] it cannot be 100 per cent logical, because then it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy,” El Semaan says.

“In rom-coms, people will take anything you give them and they will enjoy it, they will believe it because it feels good, it feels light and puts the characters in a situation where it makes it funny.”

Honeymoonish uses several tropes of the genre, such as fake relationships, going from enemies to lovers and the idea of a major lie as a central plotline. However, El Semaan also emphasises that while the genre does lean towards stretching what is plausible, the story also needs to be grounded in some recognisable logic.

“You do have to make it logical too,” he says. “You do have to make it in a way where people don't say, how in the world did that happen? That can never happen. So it's a bit of a magic and fairytale with real-life stuff.”

When the poster and trailer for the film were released, there was some backlash online, particularly on social media over the suggestive nature of the film, including a scenario where Noor accidentally takes a Viagra pill.

For El Semaan, these criticisms come from a wider culture of assumptions, where online platforms make it easy for people to judge and comment on a piece of content before completely experiencing it.

“We had preconceptions and prejudgments based on our poster when it first came out. I think that's something very dangerous in life,” he says.

“When you judge something even before you see it, it just ruins the whole thing. You can't force people to like things. It's taste, people can enjoy it or people cannot enjoy it. It's a genre that's there.”

Despite the initial backlash, the director maintains that Honeymoonish’s sole purpose as a film is to entertain audiences and inspire a sense of magic in their lives.

“We all are rom-com fans deep down inside, even though sometimes we try to deny it,” he says.

“After a long, busy day you want that film where you sit down and not think and just enjoy the moment and smile and laugh. That's what this film is.”

Honeymoonish is now streaming on Netflix

Updated: May 12, 2024, 3:04 AM