Alcohol, adultery and homosexuality: a film turns into a political storm in Egypt

Ashab wala Aaz, first Arab film on the Netflix platform, adaptation of Perfect Strangers, “aims to break family values” according to a lawyer, who seized the government to do so “to forbid”.

Netflix wanted to strike a blow with its first pan-Arab production Ashab wala Aaz, “the best friends in the world” in Arabic. Goal achieved. In Egypt, the most populous of the Arab countries, some are agitated to banish him and others rush to see him. It was the expected sensation of the beginning of the year: the film brings together well-known actors from Lebanon and Egypt, the two behemoths of Arab pop culture. And it’s the remake of a successful Italian feature film, perfect strangers including the French version, The game, has already been a hit on the online platform.

Three days after its release, Ashab wala Aaz, which tells of a game between friends that goes wrong, is at the top of the ten most-watched films on Netflix in the Arab world. But in Egypt, a lawyer seized the Ministry of Culture and the censorship service to make “to forbid” a film which, he says, “aims to break family values” and the very zealous MP Moustafa Bakri called for an extraordinary session of Parliament to look into the matter.

Ban Netflix

The story is that of three couples – two Lebanese, one Egyptian – who meet for a drunken dinner. During the evening, they put their laptops on the table and playfully share each message or call with the whole group. Wives discover mistresses, friends of betrayals, husbands of liaisons and the group that one of them is homosexual, in an almost closed door.

Moustafa Bakri, he claims to have scrutinized each plan. Results : “There are more than twenty pornographic scenes”, he asserts, while no erotic scene, not even a kiss, appears in the film, which Netflix prohibits for children under 16 for its foul language. The deputy, who regularly sets himself up as a guardian of morals, has gone on all the sets of the most watched talk shows in the country of 102 million inhabitants to demand nothing less than the outright banning of Netflix in Egypt. The wrong of Ashab wala Aaz ? Show a father talking to his daughter about her first sexual encounter after her mother finds condoms in her bag and “defend homosexuality when we are an oriental society”, accuses Mustafa Bakri.

“There is a difference between not denouncing a phenomenon and encouraging it”, responds film critic Tarek al-Chennaoui in a country where homosexuality is not expressly prohibited but where the repression of LGBTQ + people has increased since the election of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in 2014.

SEE ALSO – A homosexual couple in “10 perfect couples”? Elsa Fayer and Virginie Conte respond

An actress criticized

And above all, argues Tarek al-Chennaoui, Egyptian cinema has never been cautious. Almost 20 years ago, audiences flocked to theaters to Sahr al-Layali, “Sleepless Nights” in Arabic, the story of four couples who tear themselves apart after a dinner with friends with, on the menu, male impotence, adultery and differences between social classes. Several Egyptian films, including The Yacoubian Building, adapted from the novel by Alaa Al-Aswani, have already dealt with homosexuality explicitly. And the height of irony, in 2016, the prize for best screenplay at the Cairo Film Festival was awarded to… perfect strangers !

But in a country where conservatism and a rigorous reading of Islam have continued to progress, one woman concentrates all the criticism: the only Egyptian actress in Ashab wala Aaz, Mona Zaki. On screen, she plays a woman caught between a stepmother who despises her and a husband who no longer touches her. In the city, Internet users reduce the actress – who was just playing in Sahr al-Layali alongside her husband Ahmed Helmi in their early days – to her sole status as a wife.

Rather than addressing her, they challenge Ahmed Helmi, one of the most famous Egyptian actors who is not in the Netflix cast. “How could he allow his wife to play this role?”, writes one. Others go even further and ask him to repudiate her immediately. “It’s a courageous and original film”, retorts on Facebook Khaled Ali, a great figure of the Egyptian left. “Everything he talks about does exist in our societies, no offense to those who prefer to ignore it, keep quiet or attack”.

SEE ALSO – David Mora (Household Scenes): “The series lacks a homosexual couple”

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