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Netflix’s First Arabic Film Tackles Taboos, Controversy Erupts Among Conservatives

Scenes in the first Arabic Netflix movie have sparked a public drama as intense as the one that plays out onscreen. On social media and TV talk shows and among friends in Egypt and other Middle East countries, a torrent of critics have denounced the film as a threat to family and religious values, encouraging homosexuality and unfit for Arab societies.

Others have rallied to the film’s defense, saying detractors are in denial about what happens behind closed doors in real life. Those who don’t like the movie, they argue, are free to not subscribe to Netflix or simply skip the film.

Titled “Ashab Wala A’azz,” which means “No Dearer Friends,” the movie is an Arabic version of the Italian hit “Perfect Strangers,” which has inspired many other international remakes.

It tells the story of seven friends at a dinner party gone wrong after the hostess suggests that, as a game, they agree to share any calls, text and voice messages. As smartphones buzz, secrets are revealed, infidelities are exposed and relationships are tested.

The controversy has reignited debates in the region over artistic freedom versus social and religious sensitivities; censorship; what constitutes a taboo in different societies and portrayal of gay characters.

To see those themes broached in an Arabic-language movie with Arab actors went too far for some. (The movie has no nudity; it’s largely an hour and a half of people talking around a dinner table.) “I think if it’s a normal foreign movie, I will be OK. But because it’s an Arabic movie, I didn’t accept it,” said 37-year-old Elham, an Egyptian who asked for her last name to be withheld due to the sensitivity of the topic. “We don’t accept the idea of homosexuality or intimate relations before marriage in our society, so what happened was a cultural shock.”

Homosexuality is a particularly strong taboo in Egypt: A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 95 percent in the country say it should be rejected by society; in Lebanon, that number stood at 80 percent at the time.

The movie’s cast are mostly prominent Lebanese stars and its events are set in Lebanon. There, it has garnered many positive reviews.

It’s not the first time that an Arabic-language movie has featured gay characters.

Most famously, the 2006 movie “The Yacoubian Building” with a cast of A-list Egyptian actors caused a stir for, among other things, including a gay main character. But the character was ultimately killed by his lover in what many saw as punishment.

In contrast, the gay character in “Ashab Wala A’azz” is not depicted negatively. Another character encourages him to expose his former employers who let him go for his sexual identity.

Fatima Kamal, a 43-year-old Egyptian, said she didn’t find it to be promoting same-sex relationships. She argued that some Egyptian movies in the past were more daring. “The movie touched on issues that the society refuses to confront but they do happen,” she said. “We all have a dark side and hidden stories.”

Kamal, who has a 12-year-old son, also dismissed the idea the film would corrupt Arab youth.

Talking on a popular TV show, Egyptian lawmaker Mostafa Bakry contended Egyptian and Arab family values are being targeted.

“This is neither art nor creativity,” he said. “We must ban Netflix from being in Egypt” even if temporarily.

Film critic Khaled Mahmoud said Egypt “used to produce powerful and daring movies in the 1960s and 1970s.” But much of that adventurousness has been lost with the trend of so-called “clean cinema.”

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