Directed by Wissam Smayra, one of the producers of the 2018 Oscar-nominated Lebanese film Capernaum, the film features Egyptian superstar Mona Zaki, Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar, Capernaum director and actor Nadine Labaki, and several other Arab actors. It released on Netflix on January 20 and has been among the top trending topics on social media in Egypt ever since.
The film’s synopsis on IMDb reads: “A dinner party unravels when a tight group of friends agree to leave their phones unlocked on the table, exposing juicy interactions and dark secrets.”
One of the characters is revealed to be gay, while another scene has Zaki taking off her underwear and putting it in her handbag. Both of these, as well as the open discussions of sex in the film, have seemingly offended Egyptian audiences, who took to social media to express their disapproval.
Twitter users from the North-African nation, which has Islam and Arabic as its State religion and language, respectively, called out the cast as well as the streaming platform for creating a “film that goes against Egyptian values and morals.” While homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, as with most other countries in the Arab world, films that feature sex, nudity, or references to homosexuality are considered inappropriate.
Among those who expressed their disapprobation was television show host Moustafa Bakri, who criticised the film for violating the moral code of Egyptian society.
This is not the first time that a film with LGBTQIA+ characters and references has met with such backlash in the Arab world.
In 2021, Marvel’s Eternals and Steven Spielberg‘s West Side Story were both denied release in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, after they failed to get clearances from the respective censor boards.
While Eternals introduced the first ever Black gay superhero in a Marvel film (Tyree Henry’s Phastos), Spielberg’s film features a transgender character called Anybodys, played by non-binary actor Iris Menas. Disney, which distributed both films, refused to comply with the edits and cuts suggested by the censor boards in the Gulf countries.
Homosexuality is still officially illegal across many parts of the Middle East and films containing any depictions of the LGBTQIA+ community are frequently pulled from release. The only references to homosexuality that are found in Arabic films are typically in the form of comedy or innuendo.
It is, however, notable that in December 2021, the UAE announced that it will screen international films in cinemas as is and not censor them anymore. Instead of cutting scenes from films, a new classification will be introduced in the country, with a minimum age limit of 21 years, to regulate the viewership of content deemed inappropriate.
It remains to be seen if other Arab countries will eventually follow suit.