Ashab Wala Aaz (meaning “Friends or Dearer”) has been the number one most watched film on Netflix in Egypt for seven consecutive days, and the film has generated a similar level of viewer interest in Jordan and Morocco.
Over the past five days, the film has also reached number one on the streaming platform in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The debut narrative feature by Wissam Smayra revolves around a party of seven friends who gather to celebrate a lunar eclipse in Lebanon. The hosts are Mai (Nadine Labaki) and her husband Waleed (Georges Khabbaz); their guests are Ziad (Adel Karam), newlywed to Jana (Diamand Bou Abboud), the Egyptian couple Mariam (Mona Zaki) and Sherif (Eyad Nassar), and their single friend Rabie (Fouad Yammine).
The high viewership for Ashab Wala Aaz, the first Arabic film production by Netflix, likely has two reasons: it is an Arabic version of the international hit Perfetti sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers), and it has stirred a huge uproar and controversy on social media.
The premise of Perfetti sconosciuti is simple: at one point the friends agree to share the next text or phone call any of them receives on their mobiles with all the others. It begins as a kind of joke but quickly devolves into a nightmare of secrets and scandals, with marital infidelity and other issues exposed, according to an Al-Ahram Weekly review.
"The script actually tackles numerous issues of relevance to contemporary society. The influence of smartphones, which is the topic that starts off their game, is one. Another is sexual freedom, which comes up when Waleed and Mai’s 18-year-old daughter expresses the desire to stay over at her boyfriend’s, triggering Mai’s fury even as Waleed insists that it is the girl’s decision alone. The third issue is when it transpires that Rabie is gay and has lost his job because of it. He is reluctant to sue the institution because he fears that his mother will find out about his sexual orientation."
Immediately upon its release, Ashab Wala Aaz met with intense criticism and dennunciation from many across social media.
One lawyer is actually in the process of suing Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem, whom he holds responsible for allowing a film that “promotes immorality and homosexuality”
"The film includes no nudity or intimacy and nothing offensive to anyone. There is a moment when Mariam [Mona Zaki] takes off her underwear but it happens mostly offscreen and is dramatically justified," according to the Al-Ahram Weekly review.
Much outrage has been directed against actress Mona Zaki for that moment in the film.
However, a statement by the head of the Actors’ Syndicate Ashraf Zaki showed unequivocal support for actor Mona Zaki and freedom of creativity.
The production by Paolo Genovese, which won the 2016 Cairo International Film Festival’s best screenplay award, among many other accolades, had been remade in 18 different languages before arriving in this part of the world, featuring different actors each time.
Shortly prior to its global premiere, the film had its premiere at the Bulgari Hotel in Dubai on 17 January to huge success.