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Perfect Strangers: Netflix's First Arabic Film Tackles Taboos & Sparks Controversy

The new film has sparked intense debate, especially in Egypt, where a politician has accused it of inciting “homosexuality and betrayal”…

Perfect Strangers, the Arabic-language version of the hit Italian film Perfect Strangers and Netflix’s first Arabic original feature, has been under intense fire from conservatives across the Middle East since it started streaming across the globe. The film has been criticized by an Egyptian politician and accused of, among other things, perversion, promoting homosexuality and infidelity and even being part of a plot to disrupt Arab society. But at the same time the film has also received critical acclaim and been strongly defended by the artistic community and beyond.

Perfect Strangers — which at one point became the most-remade film in cinema history, including French, Russian and Mexican versions — tells the story of a group of friends in Lebanon who agree to share their incoming calls, voice and text messages with each other over a dinner party, leading to unveiling various secrets and scandals that test their marriages and friendships. A gay man comes out after years of hiding. A father has a phone call with his teenage daughter about her first sexual encounter. And an unhappy wife searches for satisfaction in sexting with strangers. These are some of the secrets that unravel in the Arabic remake of Perfect Strangers.

The latest remake features an all-star cast including Egypt’s Mona Zaki and Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar, as well as Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki and Georges Khabbaz. Netflix has a 16+ age rating on the film, which does not include nudity or sex scenes.

Days after its release, the film hit the top of the most-watched list this week in Egypt, Lebanon and other countries in the region. While it was expected to become a major talking point and push boundaries — featuring a gay character and other storylines considered taboo and rarely discussed outright on screen in many Middle East countries — few would have anticipated the immediate wave of controversy it would provoke. Social media exploded with criticism and a barrage of homophobic messages. In Egypt (Perfect Strangers is an Egyptian co-production), the film stirred such an uproar that it drew a string of lawsuits, and one member of parliament demanded a legislative session to discuss banning Netflix entirely.

Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz claims that the film is part of a “plot to disrupt Arab society” and that Zaki was the “champion” of it all. Zaki plays the role of the wife in an unsatisfied couple, and was criticized by Mahfouz and some Egyptians for a brief scene in which she takes her underwear off from under her dress.

Various Egyptian news sites and the Arabic edition of CNN have also reported that film has even been addressed by Egyptian politician Mustafa Bakri, who in a statement to the speaker of Egypt’s House of Representatives said it “incites homosexuality and betrayal.”

In Egypt, unlike countries in the Gulf, homosexuality isn’t officially illegal, although it is regularly cracked down upon in society.

But with the fiery backlash has come a flood of support for the film, with many people praising both the storyline — for raising real-life topics often ignored — and the production itself, while also criticizing the attitudes of those attacking it. A hashtag from supporters that translates as #ImAlsoAPerfectStranger has even emerged on social media.

Netflix has declined to comment on any controversy surrounding the film. Despite the uproar, Perfect Strangers has been a huge success for the streaming company topping viewing charts in the region and around the globe and helping underline the drive for more localized content.

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