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Netflix’s ‘Perfect Strangers’ Arabic remake sparks calls to ban it in Egypt — and a debate about Arab society

Netflix's first Arabic film production, a remake of “Perfect Strangers,” was released on Jan. 20. (Courtesy of Netflix)

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 at a dinner among friends in Netflix’s first film production in Arabic, a remake of the Italian feature “Perfect Strangers.”

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. It brought to the screen conversations that may be common in many parts of the Arab world, but typically unfold at home, among friends or in whispers.

Some preferred to keep it that way. The film stirred such an uproar in Egypt that it drew a string of lawsuits, and one member of parliament demanded a legislative session to discuss banning Netflix entirely.

But it became a hot topic in living rooms, on talk shows and online, with many viewers hailing it for starting a conversation on issues ranging from social freedoms in the region to more queer representation in Arab movies.

“Perfect Strangers” — which at one point became the most-remade film in cinema history, including French, Russian and Mexican versions — tells the story of friends who play a game over dinner: With their phones out on the table, everyone has to share every message and phone call they get with each other.

In the industry, some filmmakers saw the Arabic production as a milestone. 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.

Zaki, who plays the role of the wife in an unsatisfied couple, came under fire in particular from some Egyptians for a brief scene in which she takes her underwear off from under her dress. This prompted the country’s actors syndicate to denounce attacks against the star.

In a TV interview, lawmaker Mostafa Bakri accused the film of “targeting” family values in Egypt, where a crackdown on the LGBTQ community has led to dozens of arrests. The lawmaker criticized the depiction of homosexuality and singled out the story line of a father navigating his daughter’s questions about sex.

When the TV anchor asked why he called for a session in parliament over a movie that was not made in Egypt, Bakri responded: “We should ban Netflix.”

The streaming company did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Netflix has a 16+ age rating on the film, which does not include nudity or sex scenes.

Egypt’s famed cinema industry has long addressed issues such as adultery and sexual desire, and the Cairo International Film Festival gave an award to the original Italian version, “Perfetti Sconosciuti,” after it came out in 2016.

Abeer Al-Najjar, an associate professor of media, said the reaction to the film was part of rising attacks on social freedoms in the region. She noted that much of the outrage had focused on one of the leading women, Zaki, whose male counterpart in the film, her husband on screen, also has a penchant for sexting.

One Egyptian man quipped on Facebook that reality was probably more shocking than the plot: “People, if we made a realistic film about our society, Netflix would be embarrassed to show it.”

Meanwhile in a tweet, a Lebanese woman urged those criticizing the film “because it doesn’t ‘represent’ our society” to “face reality.” She wrote: “Our lives are as messy as in this film and more.”

Farah Saafan in Cairo contributed to this report.

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