Netflix stirs controversy in Egypt with first Arabic-language feature film

Prominent conservatives object to ‘Perfect Strangers’ remake starring Mona Zaki

The cast of Netflix’s Arabic-language remake of the 2016 Italian film ‘Perfect Strangers’. Photo: Netflix
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An Egyptian MP has lodged a formal complaint about Netflix’s first Arabic-language feature film.

MP Mostafa Bakry said Ashab Wala A’aaz offended the mores of Egyptian society and called for the streaming site to face a boycott.

The film features some of the biggest Arab film stars, including Egyptian actress Mona Zaki.

It was released on Netflix last week and was one of Egypt’s top-trending topics on social media over the weekend, with thousands weighing in on both sides of the debate.

The movie, a remake of the 2016 Italian film Perfect Strangers, has proven divisive in conservative and Muslim-majority Egypt.

Its plot follows a group of close friends at a dinner party who decide to play a game.

They must place their smartphones on a table, and share every call, text and voice message they receive with the rest of the group.

Over the course of the evening, the players’ most intimate secrets are revealed.

One is in a same-sex relationship and another, played by Zaki, is having an extramarital affair.

Mr Bakry objected to the group’s acceptance of the same-sex relationship and of the husband of Zaki’s character laughing off her online dalliance.

In his complaint filed to the speaker of parliament, he said the film’s portrayal of Arabs did not conform to the moral code in Egypt, nor that of the wider region.

On Saturday, Mr Bakry phoned in to a popular talk show to criticise the film and call for Netflix to be blocked in Egypt.

Mr Bakry previously took issue with another Netflix production in Arabic, the Jordanian-produced TV series Al Rawabi School for Girls, saying it promoted same-sex relationships among teenage girls.

One of the country’s top lawyers, Ayman Mahfouz, has also objected to Ashab Wala A’aaz.

He publicly warned Culture Minister Enas Abdel Dayem that he would sue her ministry to have the film removed from Egyptian channels.

Online, legions of people spoke up against and in defence of the film.

Referring to a scene also highlighted by Mr Bakry, in which a character lets his teenage daughter sleep over at a male friend’s house, a Twitter user posting under the name of Randa Ahmed wrote: “What kind of Arab father would allow his daughter to have sex so freely? This film bears no resemblance to Arab culture at all.”

Zaki’s role as a sexually adventurous married woman in the film, a contrast to her usual portrayals of modest, quintessentially Egyptian characters, also appeared to have upset many commentators.

On Monday, the country's actors' guild issued a statement expressing its solidarity with Zaki, and promised to back her against any legal proceedings taken against her because of her role in the film.

"The guild is also warning everyone not to target any of its members, simply because a work of art does not match their personal tastes," read the statement.

Zaki has not yet commented publicly on the ongoing controversy, though she has been resharing her fans' defences of the film on her Instagram stories since Friday.

On the other hand, defenders of the film argued that because it was produced by Netflix, which is not Arab, and does not specifically depict Egypt (the film is set in Lebanon), there were no grounds to attack it for not accurately representing the country’s mores.

“Egyptian viewers have some really deep-seated control issues,” Egyptian novelist Mirna El Mahdy wrote on Facebook.

“They’re looking for ‘Egyptianness’ in a film produced by Netflix which includes only one Egyptian actor? The majority of the cast and crew are not Egyptian, the events don’t take place in Egypt. They had better watch state television – when has that ever disappointed anyone’s Egyptianness?”

Updated: January 24, 2022, 12:32 PM