Titled Ashab Wala Aaz (meaning “Friends or dearer”), the release of the Arabic version of Perfetti sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers) on Netflix has generated a huge uproar on social media and further afield. The 2016 production by Paolo Genovese (which won the Cairo International Film Festival best screenplay award, among many others) had been remade in 18 different languages when it arrived in this part of the world, featuring different actors each time.
Adapting a preexisting piece of art into another, even in the same medium, has been a perfectly acceptable practise throughout history, but the idea of the Format Production, which is to produce a scene-by-scene, carbon copy version of the film or television piece – increasingly widespread in Egypt – seems to take it to an unprecedented extreme.
The debut narrative feature by Wissam Smayra, Ashab Walla Aaz revolves around a party of seven friends who have gathered 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). Practically the only difference between Ashab Walla Aaz and Perfetti sconosciuti is the inclusion of an Egyptian couple – and the dish they contribute: molokheya and rabbit – among Lebanese friends, and occasional mention of previous visits to Egypt.
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.
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.
None of this is particularly new or shocking to the Egyptian audience, and the film includes no nudity or intimacy and nothing offensive to anyone. There is a moment when Mariam takes off her underwear but it happens mostly offscreen and is dramatically justified. It seems to be the film’s content that quickly had conservatives and fanatics up in arms against it and its stars. This has gone so far that one lawyer is in the process of suing Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem, whom he holds responsible for allowing a film that “promotes immorality and homosexuality”, ignoring the simple fact that the film is being shown through an international platform that is not under Abdel-Dayem’s jurisdiction.
A statement by the head of the Actors’ Syndicate Ashraf Zaki – sent to the press a few days ago – showed unequivocal support for actor Mona Zaki: “The syndicate stresses basic principles, the most important of which are: preserving the freedom of creativity in a civil state that believes in freedom as an essential part of the conscience of Egyptian artists, which is protected and defended by the syndicate.
Secondly, the Syndicate will not stand idly by while an Egyptian artist is subjected to intimidation and abuse. Thirdly, the Syndicate, which is keen on the values of Egyptian society, stresses that the role of art and soft power is to tackle critical issues and to sound the alarm on phenomena to which our society might be subject. This is the role of art in general and the role of acting in particular.”
It is noticeable that the number of the attacks on Egyptian art and artists has risen. Is this because productions are fearlessly taking on taboo subjects or because Islamists and Islamist sympathisers – no longer part of the political process – have gone back to their pre-2011 practise of attacking the arts to embarrass the government? Or is it that social media users in Egypt are becoming more fanatical? Any one of those reasons alone is terrifying.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.