The new film depicting taboo topics in Middle Eastern society has sparked debate among viewers, even as bold cinema in the region dates back to Egypt’s 1940s-1960s golden age of filmmaking.

Netflix’s first original Arabic film Perfect Strangers has created a divide among its Arab viewers, some applauding the film’s honesty and others disapproving of its bold approach in highlighting social issues in Arab society.

Debut Lebanese director Wissam Smayra’s film reached number five in Netflix’s non-english titles in the global top 10 and reached number one in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon. 

The film’s very open portrayal of issues surrounding intimacy in relationships caused an uproar throughout the Middle East, particularly in Egypt where Member of the House of Representatives and TV journalist Mustafa Bakry urged the country's authorities to halt co-operation with Netflix. 

According to the Egyptian daily news website Al-Watan, prominent and controversial lawyer Ayman Mahfouz also filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, saying the film was a “plot to disrupt Arab society”.

Overall, criticism and calls for censorship were centered on accusations that the film undermines and disrespects “traditional” Middle Eastern values. 

One irony in reactions to the new film is that the Cairo International Film Festival’s top award in 2016 went to “Perfetti Sconosciutti”, the original Italian film that Perfect Strangers is adapted from. 

Another irony is that one of the film’s main points of interrogation is how censorship itself affects and endangers family values.

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Censorship as social taboos

Taboos in Middle Eastern society surrounding issues of intimacy, body image, sexual identity and mental health are the backdrop to the exposed clashing public versus private lives of the film’s characters. 

In an interview with Dubai’s Savoir Flaire magazine, one of the film’s actresses, Nadine Labaki, discussed self-censorship that comes from cultural and gender expectations in all parts of the world. 

“...we tend to suppress a lot of who we really are, and I’m fascinated with this idea of not being able to be exactly who we are,” Labaki said.

In the film, a game between friends, three couples and their secretly gay friend, brings out the dark side of what appears, at first, to be happy and healthy relationships. 

The group decides to take any message, email or phone call out loud in front of one another, bringing to the surface all the lies, secrets and betrayals taking place in each relationship.

Adultery is exposed, previously covered up by the social privileges afforded to men in a patriarchal society. Discouraged from sharing intimate needs with their husbands, two women are found to be secretly expressing desire outside of their unhappy marriages. One man is discovered to be in therapy, hiding behind the social shame associated with mental illnesses and another realises the impossibility of living as an openly gay man between his friends and community. 

Egyptian film critic and writer of Arab cinema Tarek El Shennawi defended the film saying the issues it presents already exist in Arab society and that those who say otherwise are “burying their heads in the sand”.

Many of the taboos represented in the film have roots in patriarchal structures and misogynistic attitudes - issues not unique to the Middle East, but still quite pervasive across its societies.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that almost every woman I know around me is not completely fulfilled or completely happy. There’s a self-censorship that I feel women tend to do, not only in the Arab world, but everywhere in the world. We suppress things because it’s considered taboo,” Labaki said in Savoir Flaire. 

The majority of men’s views towards gender relations and cultural expectations are still at odds with women’s throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, according to an international study conducted by the International Men and Gender Equality Survey - an advocacy project that carried out extensive surveys in 2017 of attitudes to gender issues around the world.

Younger women surveyed showed a consistent desire for greater gender equality, especially in the areas of education, employment and a fair sharing of household duties. 

Among the factors found to impact how people viewed gender equality were: level of education and examples modeled before them in society. 

Often holding up a mirror to society, many films, and art in general, have played a kind of educational role throughout history, challenging rigid social norms and taboos held across cultures.  

And the Middle East’s production of bold cinema is nothing new, considered at one point in time bolder than American and European cinema. 

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The Middle East’s golden age of cinema

Egyptian cinema in particular has a long history of challenging social norms and behaviours. In the 1950s, Egypt's cinema industry was the third largest in the world.

The 1957 film “Ayn Omry” (Where is my life?) challenges the patriarchal structures of Egyptian society through the story of a young woman named Alia, who seeks independence outside of marriage. 

That same year, the film “Sleepless” was produced, exploring the dark realms of the human psyche as a young woman develops an unusual attachment to her family due to the divorce of her parents. 

The 1940s - 1960s were considered the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Forty-four films on the best 100 Egyptian films list of all time were produced within the three decades. 

However, by 1966, the Egyptian film industry was nationalised. Egyptian writer and world-renowned film critic Samir Faird wrote in Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly in 1999 that the "heavy government hand" that accompanied nationalisation of Egyptian film "stifled innovative trends and sapped its dynamism”.

Cinema in Cairo did begin to take risks again in the early 2000s with films such as Hani Khalifa’s 2003 “Sahar al-Layali” (Sleepless Nights), touching upon challenges facing young married and unmarried couples in the country. It too raised topics similar to those in Smayra’s Perfect Strangers. 

Regardless of the divided opinions expressed upon the release of Perfect Strangers, its rise to number one across the Middle East on Netflix’s viewing charts indicates that there is a continued strong public appetite to see the region reflected through the film industry.

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Source: TRT World