Netflix‘s first Arab film production was always expected to be a big event, but within days of its release, public opinion in Egypt was so inflamed that critics called for the platform to be banned.
“Ashab wala Aaz” – one of countless remakes of the Italian comedy-drama “Perfetti Sconosciutti” (Perfect Strangers) – features renowned actors from Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
The film tells the story of a group of friends who get together for dinner and decide to make the evening more interesting by agreeing to share every text, email and phone call they receive with the rest of the group.
As events unfold, the game reveals shocking truths about the band members as it tackles topics ranging from adultery and premarital sex to homosexuality, all of which are widely considered taboos in Egypt.
The film, which was released on January 20, immediately rose to the list of most-watched films in Egypt.
But in the ensuing fracas, lawsuits were filed against the Ministry of Culture and the censor’s office for allowing the film to be shown, and MPs called for a special session to discuss whether to ban completely Netflix.
Online, many criticized famous Egyptian actress Mona Zaki, who took part in what they called a “shameful” film.
Amid the storm, the US streaming giant declined to comment.
– ‘War on morals’ –
One lawyer argued the film ‘promotes homosexuality’ while another said it sought to ‘destroy family values’ as part of a ‘systematic war on morality’ in Egyptian society.
Although homosexuality is not expressly prohibited in Egypt, it is often punished by vaguely worded laws prohibiting “debauchery”.
Additionally, discrimination against the LGBT community is prevalent in the deeply conservative and religious society.
Lawmaker Mostafa Bakry has argued that Netflix should be banned altogether as he called for an urgent meeting in parliament to discuss it.
He particularly blasted a scene in which one of the actors – who played the father of a teenage girl – discussed with his daughter about her first sexual encounter.
Premarital sex is also taboo in Egypt where, in extreme cases, it can lead to “honour killings”, especially in rural areas.
“This network targets Egyptian and Arab citizens…we should ban Netflix,” Bakri said in an interview with a private TV channel.
He said the film includes “over 20 suggestive profanities that shocked Egyptian families”.
Netflix has rated the hour-and-a-half-long feature as not suitable for those under 16, although it does not include any nudity or sex scenes.
– ‘Bold, unconventional’ –
Egyptian film critic Tarek Shennawy said he was “surprised” by the attack on actress Mona Zaki.
Zaki, who played a wife trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, was particularly criticized for a scene in which she pulls her underwear out from under her dress.
On social media, many saw the scene as a source of shame for her husband – famous actor Ahmed Helmi – and their daughter.
“How did Ahmed Helmi allow his wife to play this role in the film,” one user asked on Twitter.
Another asked how Zaki “wasn’t afraid his daughter would see her so daring”.
But Shennawy argued that “the content of the film should not affect the personal or national honor of those who participated in it”.
“We confuse fiction with reality and it’s very weird.”
– ‘Deny, silence or ignore’ –
Egyptian cinema has a long history of films that challenge morals.
Almost 20 years ago, “Sahar al-Layali” (Sleepless Nights), addressed the troubles faced by young married and unmarried couples.
He also raised topics such as adultery, classism, and sexual dissatisfaction in marriages.
In 2006, cinemas screened “The Yacoubian Building” — adapted from the best-selling novel by Alaa al-Aswany — which explicitly dealt with homosexuality.
Perhaps the biggest irony is the fact that in 2016, the top prize at the Cairo International Film Festival went to none other than “Perfetti Sconosciutti”.
But public appetite for such films has been met with growing backlash as Egypt has become more conservative and freedoms have been further curtailed under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who took office in 2014.
Yet despite the scathing reviews, others have defended the film, considering it an accurate representation of reality.
“These are bold, unconventional and broached topics that Arab cinema has not spoken of before,” prominent leftist lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali wrote on Facebook.
“It’s realistic no matter how hard we try to deny it, silence it or ignore it.”