Jordanian director Bassel Ghandour’s thriller “The Alleys,” which depicts lowlife intrigue in Amman’s murky underworld, is drawing fire from conservative members of Jordan’s parliament for its use of expletives and allegedly blasphemous themes.
Ghandour’s multi-strand genre film — shot in a claustrophobic neighborhood in East Amman called Jabal Al Natheef, where violence runs rampant — is being blasted in parliament. It has also sparked heated social media debate ever since an uncensored version of the film released on Netflix on Jan. 5.
Conservative MP Suleiman Abu Yahya on Monday demanded that one of the actors, Munther Rayahna, be stripped of his citizenship for defending the film on social media. Another conservative politician, Muhammad Abu Suailik, in parliament called for Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, which helped fund “The Alleys,” to be prosecuted “for supporting films that distort the public image of Jordanian society.”
The RFC in a statement responded by saying that its role is to promote production in Jordan and “not [to have] oversight” of what types of films are filmed there.
Meanwhile, “The Alleys,” which rapidly shot to the top of Netflix views in Jordan, is being strongly defended by viewers, liberal activists and some local media.
Storylines in the film, which has played at the Locarno, London and Rotterdam film festivals, involve a young hustler named Ali who pretends to be a white-collar career man, as well as his secret love interest Lana, and an extortion attempt that brings Lana’s mother and an older cut-throat gangster into the picture.
The pic, produced by Jordan’s The Imaginarium Films, Bayt Al Shawareb, and Egypt’s Lagoonie Group, didn’t cause a stir when distributor Mad Solutions released it theatrically across the region. However, that version of the film had either omitted or bleeped out scenes with explicit language.
The censored version of “The Alleys” played decently in local theaters, but has reached a greater audience in uncensored form on Netflix, both in and outside of Jordan. Since dropping on the streamer, the film has been Netflix’s top movie in the nation for 20 consecutive days. It’s also hit the Netflix top 10 in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
Ghandour, speaking to Variety from London, pointed out that one of the big themes in “The Alleys” is about “saving face” and “putting up social masks in society.” He noted: “To me, it’s very interesting to see people debating the exact same thing that’s being explored in the film.”
Of course, film censorship and strong reactions to movies and TV shows highlighting cultural sensitivities are nothing new in the Middle East, where scenes concerning or containing sex, homosexuality and religious issues are routinely cut to comply with censorship rules.
To name one example, Pixar’s “Lightyear” did not play in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, due to the inclusion of a same-sex kiss.
In Jordan, Netflix’s locally set original series “Al Rawabi School For Girls” sparked controversy for its allegedly “unrepresentative” portrayal of Jordanian society. And an earlier Jordan-set Netflix show “Jinn,” which opens with a young woman named Mira kissing her boyfriend, came under fire in parliament for being lewd, immoral and depicting a Western lifestyle.
“The conversation in the media and online has been interesting,” Ghandour said. “It feels like it’s become an actual conversation, not just a one-sided blasting, with people speaking out for freedom of the arts and freedom of expression. It’s been good to see this dialogue.”
Netflix did not comment on this story.