First Arabic Film by Netflix Stirs Fierce Morality Debate

CAIRO — In one of many opening scenes, a Lebanese mom confronts her 17-year-old daughter after discovering two condoms in her purse. Minutes later, an Egyptian spouse sneakily slips off her underwear simply earlier than leaving for dinner along with her husband.

Quick-forward to the second of peak pressure (spoiler alert!): An Arab man, who’s a part of a gaggle of shut pals, is revealed to be homosexual.

These scenes from the Arabic-language remake of the Italian film “Excellent Strangers” are rife with battle. However the actual drama exploded as quickly because it was launched on Netflix on Jan. 20, setting off a firestorm of criticism denouncing the movie for flouting ethical requirements. However extra reasonable voices, together with well-known actors, writers and social media influencers, rushed to defend it.

“This movie carries messages that function a trial balloon for concepts which are alien to us,” stated Tamer Amin, a preferred late-night host on Egyptian tv. “If we let these ideas and poisons unfold, all morals will probably be misplaced.”

The polarizing response to the film, the primary Arabic movie made by Netflix, mirrored a culture war between the spiritual institution and public throughout a lot of the Arab world and the often-youthful liberal forces which have converged on social media and are utilizing know-how and different channels to evade strict censorship, attain a wider viewers and gas change.

The film revolves round seven Lebanese and Egyptian pals who collect for dinner and conform to overtly share texts and calls that they obtain that night, exposing a cascade of secrets and techniques and affairs. Some messages revealed that one of many pals was homosexual, and the movie humanizes the character by unraveling a few of his pals’ homophobic reactions.

Conservatives throughout the area — particularly in Egypt, which is residence to the actress who starred within the “underwear scene,” because it got here to be identified — argued that the movie diluted Arab and Muslim identities by projecting Western norms and a shiny, liberal way of life which are out of sync with the morals of a largely reserved and non secular inhabitants.

Some critics went so far as to recommend that the movie was the product of a overseas conspiracy that used social media and streaming websites to normalize teenage intercourse, promiscuity and homosexuality in an effort to undermine social cohesion and household values.

However defenders stated the movie invited sincere dialog about universally relatable points like sexual need and infidelity — topics that, within the Arab world, are largely taboo, usually dismissed in public and barely addressed on state-regulated media.

“It’s as if these tales can solely exist overseas,” stated Lubna Qadoumi, 42, a Jordanian single mom who’s an occasions supervisor. She recalled how Netflix had additionally come below fireplace in Jordan a couple of years in the past for a sequence a few group of Jordanian youngsters and their romantic entanglements.

“Some folks simply need to shut their eyes and never go searching them,” she stated.

Tarek el-Shennawi, a distinguished Egyptian movie critic, attributed a part of the outrage to panic over a altering panorama introduced by overseas streaming providers that routinely push boundaries and take care of themes like intercourse and sexuality.

“The combat just isn’t concerning the movie as a lot because it’s about morality and faith and what ought to and shouldn’t be,” he stated.

With sufficient publicity, Mr. el-Shennawi added, persons are certain to open up and settle for numerous portrayals of the opposite.

“It’s a battle, and also you don’t know the place the bulk actually stands,” he stated. “However social change doesn’t occur in a single day.”

In a single potential indication of that change, in its first week on Netflix, “Excellent Strangers” leapfrogged to No. 1 within the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait and to No. 5 on the location’s High 10 non-English movies checklist worldwide.

Mr. el-Shennawi recounted numerous Arabic movies — beloved classics from way back to the Fifties — that embraced racy plotlines with fewer reservations.

One, “The Leech,” a 1956 Egyptian drama that was entered into the Cannes Movie Competition, revolved round one girl’s relentless drive to seduce her lover. Actresses on the time wearing miniskirts, kissed onscreen and accepted scripts that included sexual scenes and insinuations.

However because the Nineteen Eighties and Nineteen Nineties, an increase in spiritual conservatism pervaded state and civil establishments throughout a lot of the Arab world, and prompted the overwhelming majority of Muslim girls to cowl their hair. This introduced a brand new development in moviemaking often called “clear cinema.”

One of many main stars of the clean-cinema period was Mona Zaki, an Egyptian superstar who rose to fame within the Nineteen Nineties, usually taking part in the a part of the correct lady subsequent door. She starred within the Arabic model of “Excellent Strangers” because the emotionally aggrieved spouse who was caught in a loveless marriage and slipped off her underwear as she exchanged sexual texts with a person she met on-line.

Criticism of the jarring shift in Ms. Zaki’s selection of character fueled a lot of the anger over the movie.

“The assault focused Mona Zaki as a result of Arab societies and establishments considered her because the Arab girl who belonged to them,” stated Reem Alrudaini, the pinnacle of the ladies and gender research analysis unit at Kuwait College. “Now, it was like, no, she can’t characterize our girls.”

Ms. Alrudaini stated that in a way, Ms. Zaki’s evolution as an actress and the altering perceptions round her signaled a broader repudiation of the spiritual and conservative forces that had lengthy dominated society and discouraged mainstream actors from accepting roles the place a girl could be expressly sexual or the place a person may very well be homosexual.

Days after the discharge of “Excellent Strangers” in Arabic, the Egyptian Actors’ Syndicate, knowledgeable union, issued a powerful assertion saying it will help Ms. Zaki and all Egyptian artists in opposition to verbal assault, intimidation or retribution. It emphasised the group’s function in defending artistic liberty and described the nation as a “civil state,” signing off, “Lengthy dwell an enlightened Egypt.”

Regardless of that endorsement, the confrontation raged on, underscoring the fragile line that liberal artists are nonetheless compelled to toe.

“As an artist, you’re all the time negotiating what you’ll be able to and may’t say, and what you’ll be able to and may’t get away with,” stated Mohamed el-Hag, an Egyptian TV and movie scriptwriter.

That includes a sympathetic homosexual character could have crossed what conservatives — and plenty of moderates — within the area think about a crimson line.

Homosexuality is strictly prohibited below Islam, is outlawed in some Arab nations and is a criminal offense punishable by loss of life in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In a number of nations the place it’s not technically unlawful, homosexual folks can nonetheless be prosecuted below legal guidelines that criminalize “debauchery,” “indecency” or “immorality.”

In Egypt, undercover police investigators have a historical past of trolling on-line chat rooms and courting apps to entrap homosexual males, and in 2017, the authorities arrested activists for elevating a rainbow flag at an indie-rock live performance the place the Lebanese lead singer was identified to be overtly homosexual.

For the reason that launch of “Excellent Strangers,” its producers and forged members have remained silent out of worry that their look may stoke extra opposition.

Final month, Al Azhar, Egypt’s central spiritual authority, warned folks in opposition to work that aimed to “normalize homosexuality,” and it republished a proper spiritual opinion that deemed homosexuality a “reprehensible” sin.

“Netflix is selling homosexuality,” stated Mostafa Bakry, a member of Egypt’s Parliament, who filed for a proper name to motion in opposition to the movie. “I would like the federal government to take the required measures to ban the sort of work that contradicts our customs and traditions.”

Mr. Bakry launched an identical motion in 2006 after the discharge of an Egyptian movie that additionally broached the topic of homosexuality. He gathered 122 signatures in help out of the greater than 550 Parliament members.

This time, he managed to get just one apart from his personal.

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First Arabic Film by Netflix Stirs Fierce Morality Debate

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