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Sex, alcohol and the other reasons Netflix's 1st Arabic language film faces criticism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's a party game you might not want to try.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PERFECT STRANGERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) One, two, cheese.

SHAPIRO: Everybody puts their phone on the table and reads any incoming messages aloud. Any phone call gets answered on speakerphone, so everyone at the party can hear the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PERFECT STRANGERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Wine flows, secrets spill, relationships may not survive. This is the premise of a movie that's been remade 18 times in different languages since 2016. The Arabic-language version on Netflix is called "Perfect Strangers." It's a huge hit across the Middle East and North Africa. But in Egypt, conservative leaders are criticizing the film for immorality.

Movie critic Joseph Fahim joins us from Cairo. Welcome.

JOSEPH FAHIM: Hi.

SHAPIRO: I read your review of this movie, and you didn't love it. You called it visually flat, excessively chatty and predictable to a fault. Are you surprised that it's doing so well in the Middle East?

FAHIM: I'm not because - I mean, this was the, like - it's a format that have been copied. And we were not expecting something that is aesthetically, you know, like, spectacular or anything or envelope-pushing.

Why has it been doing so well? It's for two reasons. First of all, of course, like, the caliber of the talent involved, the performance, and then, of course, all the massive controversy surrounding it.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, let's talk about the controversy. What is the controversy surrounding it?

FAHIM: Oh my, God. The first thing, of course, is regarding the Egyptian star, who is one of the most beloved actresses in Egypt and widely comedic...

SHAPIRO: Mona Zaki.

FAHIM: Mona Zaki, exactly - and who made a career out of being - like, playing the roles of the girl next door. And this is the one film where you, like, see her really getting out of her shell. There is a scene where she takes off her underwear that has been widely circulated everywhere. And the fact that she curses in the movie, that she has an affair.

Yeah, like, it's just a lot of people who basically hit the internet and social media, attacking her and attacking her husband, who is a very famous comedian, and asking him to divorce her. The thing about Mona Zaki and the Egyptian couple in the film is essentially about, OK, like, how can you portray Egyptians like that?

And then of course, it's the problem with homosexuality, where there is a gay character in the film and he's being portrayed in a sympathetic way. And so a lot of conservative commentators saw this as, quote-unquote, "normalization of homosexuality."

SHAPIRO: Well, how boundary-pushing is this film by the standards of present-day Egyptian cinema?

FAHIM: It's not, at least like in the past few years, because this is certainly not the first time you've seen Egyptian cinema unfaithful couples. This is not the first time we even see sympathetic gay characters.

SHAPIRO: So why do you think it struck a chord in this way?

FAHIM: I mean, like, three things. One is, as I said, like, the Mona Zaki issue, and there is this wave of nationalism that is overtaking the country by the fact that we cannot depict ourselves in any way but amazing. The second, it's - there has been wide crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt, and it's been getting worse annually for the past four years or so. And there's - of course, there's the issue of Netflix. You know, like, the popularity of Netflix and the fact that you cannot control its content whatsoever has made everybody or, like, the regimes alarmed about it.

SHAPIRO: Apart from the specific debate over this film, what do you think this controversy says about Egyptian society in general right now?

FAHIM: It's very difficult to decide, like, what is the nature of the Egyptian society right now because we've made a lot of progress, but at the same time, we are stagnant on a lot of departments, and patriarchy is still there. Male chauvinism is still there. Anti-LGBT sentiment is still there, and it's still rampant. There have been some progress, but, I mean, I think what this shows is we've got a long way to go, even though just, like, I have to stress - there have been a lot of institutions and filmmakers and artists and press who have came in defense of both the movie and Mona Zaki.

SHAPIRO: That's Egyptian film critic Joseph Fahim on the Arabic language remake of the film "Perfect Strangers" on Netflix. Thank you very much for talking with us.

FAHIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior