CAIRO (AP) – A Lebanese father tells his teenage daughter that despite his reservations, she is free to choose whether to have sex with her boyfriend.
An Egyptian woman discreetly slips out of her black lace lingerie before going out to dinner, and it’s not her husband she’s trying to torment.
And in one dramatic moment, a man reveals he’s gay, a secret he’s been keeping from his longtime friends, who are shocked – but mostly seem to accept.
The scenes in the first Arabic Netflix film have sparked public drama as intense as that unfolding on screen. On social media and TV talk shows, and among friends in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, a spate of critics have denounced the film as a threat to family and religious values, promotes homosexuality and is unsuitable for Arab societies.
Others have rallied in defense of the film, saying critics are denying what goes on behind closed doors in real life. Those who don’t like the film, they argue, are free to not subscribe to Netflix or just skip the film.
The film, titled Ashab Wala A’azz, meaning No Dear Friends, 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 that went awry after the hostess suggested they agree to share all calls, texts and voice messages as a game. As smartphones buzz, secrets are revealed, infidelities uncovered and relationships tested.
The controversy has reignited debates in the region about artistic freedom versus social and religious sensitivities; Censorship; which is taboo in different societies and the portrayal of gay characters.
Ironically, Netflix shows many non-Arab films and series in the Middle East that show gay characters in a positive light, premarital and extramarital sex, and even nudity — which is typically banned in theaters in the region — with little outcry.
But to see these themes treated in an Arabic-language film starring Arabic actors was a step too far for some. (The film has no nudity; it’s mostly an hour and a half of people chatting at a dining table.)
“I think if it’s a regular foreign film, it’s fine. But because it’s an Arabic film, I didn’t accept it,” said 37-year-old Elham, an Egyptian who asked that her last name be withheld because of the sensitivity of the subject. “We don’t accept the idea of homosexuality or intimate relationships before marriage in our society, so what happened was culture shock.”
Homosexuality is a particularly strong taboo in Egypt: a 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 95% in the country say it should be rejected by society; in Lebanon the figure was 80% at the time.
The film’s cast consists mostly of prominent Lebanese stars and its events are set in Lebanon. There it received many positive reviews. Fans said it discussed relevant topics away from stereotypes usually associated with on-screen gay characters or cheating spouses.
“There is nothing like the Arab world’s hatred of the truth,” Rabih Farran, a Lebanese journalist, said in a tweet, referring to the backlash.
It’s not the first time gay characters have appeared in an Arabic language film.
Most famously, the 2006 film The Yacoubian Building starred a cast of Egyptian A-list actors who caused a stir, including a gay main character. But the character was ultimately killed by his lover, which many saw as punishment.
In contrast, the gay character in “Ashab Wala A’azz” is not portrayed negatively. Another character encourages him to expose his former employers who let him go because of his sexual identity.
Fatima Kamal, a 43-year-old Egyptian, said she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to encourage same-sex relationships. She argued that some Egyptian films had been bolder in the past.
“The film touched on issues that society doesn’t want to deal with, but they happen,” she said. “We all have a dark side and hidden stories.”
Kamal, who has a 12-year-old son, also dismissed the idea that the film would corrupt Arab youth.
“Technology has changed society. Restricting movies isn’t the answer,” she said. “The solution is to watch based on age ratings and talk to the youngsters and make them understand that not everything we see on the screen is okay.”
In a popular TV show, Egyptian lawmaker Mostafa Bakry claimed that Egyptian and Arab family values were being targeted.
“It’s not art or creativity,” he said. “We must ban Netflix from being in Egypt,” albeit temporarily.
Magda Maurice, an art critic who discusses Bakry on the show, disagreed. “This film shows what mobile phones are doing to people and their normal lives,” she said.
“You can’t ban anything now, but you can counter that with good art,” she added. “Prohibitions are a thing of the past.”
In Egypt, much of the excitement centered on the only Egyptian in the cast, Mona Zaki, one of the country’s biggest stars. Her character is the one seen removing her underwear, a gesture many critics called scandalous.
She was attacked by some on social media for her participation in the film. The online abuse extended to actors and actresses endorsing them or praising their performance. Some criticized her real-life husband, an Egyptian movie star in his own right, for “allowing” her to play the role.
The Egyptian Actors’ Syndicate supported Zaki and said it does not condone abuse or intimidation of actors about their work. She said freedom of creativity “is protected and defended by the syndicate,” adding that it is committed to the values of Egyptian society.
The Associated Press asked Netflix for comment on the controversy but received none.
Egypt has long celebrated its cinema industry, which has earned it the nickname “Hollywood of the East,” attracting actors from other Arabic-speaking countries and bringing Egyptian films and dialects to Arab homes around the world.
Film critic Khaled Mahmoud said Egypt “produced strong and daring films in the 1960s and 1970s”. But much of that spirit of adventure has been lost with the trend of so-called “clean cinema,” which emphasizes themes deemed family-friendly, with no physical intimacy or immodest clothing, he added.
“Society has changed and viewer culture has become flawed.”
Storylines about affairs or sexual relationships are not uncommon in Arab films. But female stars are often grilled in interviews over whether they would agree to wear swimsuits or kiss co-stars on camera.
“Our job is to let art be art,” Mahmoud said. “We cannot criticize art through a moral lens.”
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.