There aren’t many surprises in Netflix’s first Arabic feature, Perfect Strangers.
On paper, the film is a facsimile of the 2016 Italian original. It tells the story of a get-together of family and friends, an agreement they make to share all incoming calls and messages for one night, and the gradual and utter disintegration of their relations, one phone chime at a time.
The original Perfect Strangers has made history for the most remakes in cinema, with 18 in total, so far.
The Arabic remake, which was released on Netflix on Thursday, is every bit a voyeuristic treat as the original, and though the plot changes are minimal, the dream team of pan-Arab stars manage to rejuvenate Perfect Strangers to make it a story ripe for the Arab world.
Titled Ashab Wala A'az, the remake has been adapted into Arabic by Gabriel Yammine and is directed by Wissam Smayra, making it the latter's debut feature.
More notably, it is the first time Academy-Award nominated Nadine Labaki and Egyptian veteran actress Mona Zaki are on screen together, alongside Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar, as well as Lebanese talents Georges Khabbaz, Adel Karam, Fouad Yammine and Diamand Bou Abboud.
This stellar menagerie, Labaki says, was among the reasons she decided to come on board the project. That, and the universality of the story in the original film.
“We all live in a world where everyone has a phone and almost all your life is on the phone,” Labaki tells The National. “So I think everybody relates to it. We all have the same barricades and aren’t sure how to deal with it. Do we put all our secrets and everything we do in life on this small device? What happens if somebody else finds out what’s inside?”
For Khabbaz, a playwright renowned for the social and political messages he imbues into his works, the original Perfect Strangers contained a domestic moral, which he liked to see presented in an Arab setting.
“This is a social film,” he says. “It touches upon the problems of youth, and of family. It encourages openness and transparency between parents and their children. I’m happy with this film because in the Arab world, communications are a bit closed off between the two generations.”
Khabbaz says his character, Walid, who is seeking to keep his marriage from crumbling while trying to ameliorate the relationship between his wife (Labaki) and his daughter (Sinead Chaaya), was an ideal vessel in which to present these issues.
“The film lays bare the importance of having healthy conversations between parents and children, and how to impart principles to your children but also the freedom of choice,” he says. “The most important thing is to have heart-to-heart discussions, because they will boost children’s confidence, which helps them make better choices.”
Nevertheless, Khabbaz had difficulties while approaching the role of Walid, a character he describes as taciturn and unforthcoming.
“He isn’t like the other personalities,” he says. “He doesn’t talk a lot. He doesn’t express himself. His reactions are measured. The rest of the characters all have peaks where they come clean and say what’s on their minds. That’s not the case with Walid.”
Meanwhile, Labaki was drawn to her character May’s guarded personality, which made it fun for her, as an actress, to deconstruct and present.
“May has different layers that she discovers slowly throughout the film,” she says. “You’re not entirely sure who this person is or what’s going on in her life and then, slowly, you start seeing her wounds.
“I think this is the case of many women I know, this sort of contradiction between who you are and what you dreamt of being because of social pressure. How you end up self-censoring yourself all the time,” Labaki says. “I think May is one of those people. What you see is not really what you get. There’s a lot of things that are hidden.”
While most Oscar-nominated talents would be hesitant to join a project with a debut feature director, Perfect Strangers marks the second film in a year, after Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon, that Labaki has starred in with a first-time director behind the reigns.
“It all depends on the chemistry I have with a certain director or script,” she says. “Even with the people I work with, or on my own films, it’s always based on the human relationship. It’s always based on passion, and talent. I don’t think experience has anything to do with my decisions.”
What made joining Perfect Strangers an easy decision for Labaki was that she trusted Smayra’s directorial sensibilities, and also wanted to get the chance to work again with Khabbaz, with whom she has had a long-running collaborative relationship.
“Wissam [Smayra] is a great friend of mine, and I have a personal relationship with a lot of actors in the film. Georges [Khabbaz] and I are always in an ongoing project,” she says. “We see each other a lot and share so many ideas.”
Most recently, the duo worked together on Hamasat, an online play as part of an initiative organised with the purpose of reviving Beirut's theatre scene, after the port explosion in August 2020. It featured a group of distinguished Lebanese playwrights, directors and actors and was directed by Lebanese stage director and professor Lina Abyad. The event was streamed live on YouTube in November 2020 from the performing arts centre Black Box Beirut.
“The difficulty was figuring out what to say about something that speaks blatantly about itself,” Khabbaz says. “How do we say something that does not appear insignificant when compared to the awful and serious nature of the event. At the same time, if you don’t talk about it, it seems like you’ve come from outer space.
“It was difficult after the blast, to do the piece that we did,” Labaki says. “But it was really felt that we needed to do something to address what was happening. At the same time, it was difficult to tackle it in a delicate way because we’re talking about people’s suffering. It was needed but difficult.”
Labaki says she still doesn’t have concrete plans for a directorial follow-up to her critically acclaimed feature Capernaum, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2019.
“It has been a difficult two years for every Lebanese person still living in Lebanon,” she says. “But it will come at some point.”
Perfect Strangers is now on Netflix worldwide