A Lebanese father tells his teenage daughter that she is free to choose whether to have sex with her boyfriend, despite his reservations.
An Egyptian woman discreetly removes her black lace underwear from under her clothes before going out to dinner, and it’s not her husband she’s trying to excite.
And in a dramatic moment, a man reveals he’s gay, a secret he’s kept from his old friends who are shocked – but mostly seem to accept.
The scenes in the first Arab Netflix film have resulted in a public drama that is just as intense as the drama unfolding on the screen. On social media and TV talk shows and among friends in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, a torrent of critics has denounced the film as a threat to family and religious values, encouraging homosexuality and unsuitable for Arab societies.
Others rallied behind the film’s defense, saying detractors deny what goes on behind closed doors in real life. Those who don’t like the movie, they argue, are free to unsubscribe to Netflix or just skip the movie.
The film, titled ‘Ashab Wala A’azz’, which means ‘No Best Friends’, is an Arabic version of the Italian hit ‘Perfect Strangers’, which inspired many other international remakes. It tells the story of seven friends who missed out on dinner after the hostess suggested that, as a game, they agree to share all calls, texts, and voice messages. As smartphones buzz, secrets are revealed, infidelities exposed and relationships are tested.
The controversy has reignited debates in the region over artistic freedom versus social and religious sensitivities; censorship; which is taboo in various societies and portraying homosexual characters.
An irony is that in the Middle East, Netflix shows many non-Arab movies and series that portray gay characters in a positive light, premarital and extramarital sex, and even nudity—which is typically banned in the region’s movie theaters—with little protest.
But to see those themes addressed in an Arabic-language film with Arab actors was going too far for some. (The film has no nudity; it’s largely an hour and a half of people talking around a dinner table.)
“If it’s a normal foreign film, I think it’s not too bad. But because it’s an Arabic film, I didn’t accept it,” said 37-year-old Elham, an Egyptian who asked to remember her last name because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We don’t accept the idea of homosexuality or intimate relationships before marriage in our society, so what happened was a cultural shock.”
Homosexuality is a particularly strong taboo in Egypt: A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 95% in the country say it should be rejected by society; in Lebanon that number was 80% at the time.
The cast of the film is mainly made up of prominent Lebanese stars and the events are set in Lebanon. There it has gathered many positive reviews. Fans said it discussed relatable topics away from stereotypes usually attached to gay characters or cheating on-screen spouses.
“There is nothing like the Arab world’s hatred of the truth,” Rabih Farran, a Lebanese journalist, said in a tweet, referring to the resistance.
It is not the first time that gay characters have been featured in an Arabic-language film.
Most famously, the 2006 film “The Yacoubian Building” featured an A-list cast of Egyptian actors who, among other things, caused a stir for a gay protagonist, among others. But the character was eventually killed by his lover in what many saw as punishment.
In contrast, the homosexual character in “Ashab Wala A’azz” is not portrayed negatively. Another character encourages him to expose his former employers who let him go for his sexual identity.
Fatima Kamal, a 43-year-old Egyptian, said she did not think it promoted same-sex relationships. She claimed that some Egyptian films were more risqué in the past.
“The film was about issues that society refuses to face, but they do happen,” she said. “We all have a dark side and hidden stories.”
Kamal, who has a 12-year-old son, also rejected the idea that the film would spoil Arab youth.
“Technology has changed society. Restricting films is not the solution’, she says. “The solution is to watch based on age ratings and to talk to the youngsters and make it clear to them that not everything we see on the screen is okay.”
In a popular TV show, Egyptian lawmaker Mostafa Bakry claimed that Egyptian and Arab family values are being targeted.
“This is not art or creativity,” he said. “We should ban Netflix from being in Egypt,” even if it’s temporary.
Magda Maurice, an art critic who debated Bakry on the show, disagreed. “This film shows what cell phones do to people and to their normal lives,” she said.
“You can’t ban anything now, but you can confront it with good art,” she added. “Prohibition is a thing of the past.”
In Egypt, much of the fuss was directed at the only Egyptian woman in the cast, Mona Zaki, one of the country’s biggest stars. Her character is the one she sees slipping out of her underwear, a gesture that many critics denounced as outrageous.
On social media, some attacked her for participating in the film. The online abuse extended to actors and actresses who supported her or praised her performance. Some criticized her real-life husband, an Egyptian movie star in his own right, for “allowing” her to play the part.
The Egyptian actors’ syndicate supported Zaki and said it will not accept verbal abuse or intimidation against actors because of their work. It said the freedom of creativity is “protected and defended by the syndicate”, adding that it is committed to the values of Egyptian society.
The Associated Press contacted Netflix for comment on the controversy, but received none.
Egypt has long celebrated its film industry, earning it the nickname “Hollywood of the East”, luring actors from other Arabic-speaking countries and bringing Egyptian films and dialect to Arab homes around the world.
Film critic Khaled Mahmoud said Egypt “produced powerful and daring films in the 1960s and 1970s”. But much of that adventurousness has been lost with the so-called “clean cinema” trend, which focuses on themes deemed appropriate for the family without physical intimacy or indecent clothing, he added.
“Society has changed and viewer culture has become flawed.”
Storylines about affairs or sexual relations are not uncommon in Arab films. But female stars are often offended in interviews about whether they would agree to wear swimsuits or kiss fellow stars in front of the camera.
“Our job is to make art be art,” said Mahmoud. “We cannot criticize art through a moral lens.”