The Arabic adaptation of hit Italian movie “Perfect Strangers,” which is Netflix’s first Arab original film, is sparking controversy in Egypt and across West Asia due to a gay character and taboo-breaking storylines, prompting the U.S. streaming giant to respond.
Since its release, the Beirut-set “Perfect Strangers” redo has been among the top trending topics on social media in West Asia, a region also referred to as the Middle East. Reactions have been especially strong in Egypt where the pic has sparked a chorus of outrage for allegedly promoting homosexuality and immorality, leading to formal complaints being lodged to the country’s authorities, as well as a massive outpour of support.
Netflix, acknowledging the controversy for the first time, on Tuesday issued the following statement to Variety: “‘Perfect Strangers’ is a fictional story that explores universal themes without taking a moral stand, instead inviting the audience to have an open dialogue and debate. The film tackles tough subjects through humanity and humor, led by a talented Arab cast focused on creative excellence.”
The movie is directed by Lebanese first-time director Wissam Smayra and features a high-caliber pan-Arabic ensemble cast comprising Lebanese multi-hyphenate Nadine Labaki, Egyptian star Mona Zaki and Jordan’s Eyad Nassar. It released on Jan. 20 in 190 countries and has immediately become locally explosive.
Just like the original, the long-gestating Arabic “Perfect Strangers” adaptation is a tale of seven close friends who get together for dinner and decide to play a game involving placing their cell phones on the dinner table, and agreeing to openly share every call, text and voice message as it comes.
The narrative quickly unfolds into an uncharted path of secrets that reveals more than what they wish to share, including that one of the characters is gay. This aspect of the story, which is sensitive for parts of West Asia, has been kept intact in the Arabic redo. Another scene that’s been sparking debate is one in which a young woman named Maryam, played by Zaki, takes off her underwear, under a table, without any skin being shown.
Support for Zaki has come from Egypt’s actors union, which has responded for calls on social media for the star to be expelled from the organization. The union said in statement it “will not stand idle in front of any verbal assault or attempt to intimidate any Egyptian artist” and also reaffirmed “basic principles, the most important of which is preserving creative freedom.”
Many Egyptian stars have individually voiced their support for the film and its cast, including Hend Sabry, Ahmed Fahmy and Ghada Abdel Razek.
In response to the outrage, according to several local media outlets, Egyptian culture ministry official Khaled Abdel Jalil, who is also in charge of the country’s film censorship authority, has pointed out that the pic is not Egyptian, since “Perfect Strangers” was physically produced in Lebanon.
The film is co-produced by Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment’s Yalla Yalla unit with Egypt’s Film Clinic and Lebanon’s Empire Entertainment.
As a streamer, Netflix didn’t have to go through local censors and labeled the film with a 16-plus rating in West Asian territories. Due to local cultural sensitivity over movies concerning or containing homosexuality and sex, “Perfect Strangers” is not being marketed as a film for a family audience in the region. “Perfect Strangers,” which has been remade in 18 countries, went on general release in Italy and in most of the other countries where it’s been adapted.
Recent examples of Hollywood films banned for theatrical play in parts of West Asia are Marvel’s “Eternals,” featuring the first MCU gay superhero, and Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which has a transgender character.
Since its release “Perfect Strangers” has risen to the top of Netflix’s viewing charts in the region and briefly rose to become the sixth most popular title on the platform in France.