Netflix’s first Arabic-language original film has sparked off-camera controversy due to its depictions of drinking, adultery, infidelity and other issues that some viewers consider immoral.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here’s a board game you might not want to try.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE MOVIE, “PERFECT STRANGERS”)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) One, two, cheese.
SHAPIRO: Everyone put their phones on the table and read aloud all the incoming messages. Any phone call is answered on the speakerphone, so everyone at the party can hear the conversation.
(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE MOVIE, “PERFECT STRANGERS”)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As a character, non-English language spoken).
SHAPIRO: Wine flows, secrets spill, relationships may not survive. This is the premise of a film that has been remade 18 times in different languages since 2016. The Arabic language version on Netflix is called “Perfect Strangers”. It’s a huge hit in the Middle East and North Africa. But in Egypt, conservative leaders criticize the film for its immorality.
Film critic Joseph Fahim joins us from Cairo. Welcome.
JOSEPH FAHIM: Hello.
SHAPIRO: I read your review of this movie and you didn’t like it. You called it visually flat, overly talkative, and predictable to the point. Are you surprised it’s going so well in the Middle East?
FAHIM: I’m not because – I mean, it was the, like – it’s a format that was copied. And we weren’t expecting something that was aesthetically, you know, like spectacular or anything or pushing the envelope.
Why does it work so well? This is for two reasons. First, of course, like the caliber of talent involved, the performance, and then, of course, all the massive controversy surrounding it.
SHAPIRO: Okay. Well, let’s talk about the controversy. What is the controversy surrounding it?
FAHIM: Oh my God. The first thing, of course, concerns the Egyptian star, who is one of Egypt’s most beloved actresses and widely comedic…
SHAPIRO: Mona Zaki.
FAHIM: Mona Zaki, exactly – and who made a career out of being – like, playing the girl-next-door roles. And it’s the only movie where you really see her come out of her shell. There is a scene where she takes off her underwear that has been widely broadcast everywhere. And the fact that she swears in the movie, that she’s having an affair.
Yeah, it’s just a lot of people going on the internet and social media, attacking her and attacking her husband, who’s a really famous comedian, and asking her to divorce him. The thing about Mona Zaki and the Egyptian couple in the movie is basically, OK, like, how can you portray Egyptians like that?
And then of course there’s the issue of homosexuality, where there’s a gay character in the film and he’s portrayed sympathetically. And so many conservative commentators saw this as, in quotes, “a normalization of homosexuality.”
SHAPIRO: Well, how much does this film push the boundaries of the standards of current Egyptian cinema?
FAHIM: It’s not, at least like in recent years, because it’s certainly not the first time you see cheating couples in Egyptian cinema. This isn’t the first time we’ve even seen likable gay characters.
SHAPIRO: So why do you think it struck a chord in this way?
FAHIM: I mean, like, three things. One is, as I said, like the Mona Zaki question, and there’s this wave of nationalism that’s sweeping the country that we can only describe ourselves in an incredible way. The second is that there has been a massive crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt, and it has gotten worse every year for the last four years or so. And there’s – of course, there’s the Netflix problem. You know, for example, the popularity of Netflix and the fact that you cannot control its content in any way has alarmed everyone or, for example, diets.
SHAPIRO: Aside from the specific debate about this movie, what do you think this controversy is saying about Egyptian society in general right now?
FAHIM: It’s very difficult to decide, like, what is the nature of Egyptian society at the moment because we have made a lot of progress, but at the same time, we are stagnating on a lot of departments, and the patriarchy is still there. . The machismo is still there. Anti-LGBT sentiment is still there, and it’s still rampant. There’s been progress, but, I mean, I think it shows we’ve got a long way to go, although, like, I have to point out – there’s been a lot of institutions, filmmakers, artists and press who came to defend both the film and Mona Zaki.
SHAPIRO: This is Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim on the Arabic-language remake of the movie “Perfect Strangers” on Netflix. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
FAHIM: Thank you.
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