On January 20, Netflix released Perfect Strangers, its first original feature film in Arabic. A remake of the Italian film of the same name, Wissam Smayra’s masterpiece has drawn a lot of attention in the Arab world and beyond. Within a week of its release, it topped Netflix’s chart of most-watched films in a number of Arab countries and was number 5 on its global chart of non-English-language content.
In the Middle East, Perfect Strangers has challenged stereotypes by sparking fierce debates about the “morality” of cinematic portrayal of homosexuality and extramarital relations. Both topics, which are often ignored or demonised in the region, are successfully navigated in the taboo-breaking film.
In the West, for many of us fans of Arab cinema, the feature comes as a breath of fresh air. It defies the usual stereotypical narratives of terror, war and violence that dominate Western representation of the region and offers a complex image of Arab society.
The film follows the story of a group of friends who come together for dinner and decide to share with each other all messages and phone calls they receive throughout the evening. This game takes them through a series of shocking revelations, exposing their insecurities and intimate secrets and pushing their friendships and relationships to the brink.
Just like the Italian original, the film takes place in one setting, but that does not diminish from its dynamism. This is because the story is driven by unexpected twists and turns. The feature blasts through a range of emotions – comedy, drama and suspense take the viewer on a rollercoaster ride.
We thankfully see Arab characters tackling normal interpersonal relations and living their daily life without conflict dominating them. Even Iraq is mentioned not in the context of war and sectarianism, but as a destination for good higher education. For Arabic-speaking viewers, it is also pleasant to see elements of old pan-Arabism emerge, as characters speak in various Arabic dialects.
In short, Perfect Strangers is a stereotype-defying film that came out on a Western streaming platform at the right time – when the headlines coming out of the Middle East in international media only feed further into persistent prejudice towards the region.
In fact, one of the main culprits behind these widespread misconceptions about Middle Easterners is Hollywood, which for decades has fixated on films that reproduce negative stereotypes about them.
As the late Arab American writer Jack Shaheen pointed out, “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood”. In his book Reel Bad Arabs, he noted that of films he analysed between 1986 and 2000, only 12 Arab characters had positive roles compared with the colossal 935 who had negative ones.
Representation of Muslims in Hollywood has also been quite problematic. Last year’s Pillars Fund study found only 1.6 percent of 8,965 characters in films released in western Anglophone countries were Muslim and 39 percent were perpetrators of violence. Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker are two typical examples of such movies.
A more recent example of trading in cheap stereotypes about the region is the offensively titled documentary Jihad Rehab, which was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival just days after the release of Perfect Strangers.
The film tells the story of three Yemenis formerly imprisoned without trial in Guantanamo Bay who have to attend a “re-education” centre in Saudi Arabia and take art and “contemporary etiquette” classes. The accusations of Islamophobia and jingoism against the film, as well as the portrayal of the protagonists as stereotypical terrorism-prone archetypes, caused two Sundance employees to resign.
Last year, the festival recognised a film that humanised the plight of refugees – the animated documentary Flee – but it, too, depicted a Muslim-majority country – Afghanistan – with the usual tropes about war and suffering. The film is now nominated for best animation, documentary and foreign language feature at the Academy Awards.
The tendency to represent the Middle East and the Muslim world at large in just a single dimension – as a place of conflict, violence and suffering – has also reflected on local cinema. Most Arab films nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars have either followed stories of terrorism and war or highlighted societal breakdown, allowing Western audiences to feel a sense of moral superiority while watching them.
Films such as Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar and Paradise Now or Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, although brilliant works in their own right, represent only one aspect of life in the Middle East. One has to wonder when we will see Arab equivalents of romantic movies like LaLa Land or self-discovery features like Nomadland at the Oscars, though plenty exist.
Unfortunately for talented Arab filmmakers, Hollywood’s preferences do affect their chances of garnering international recognition. For example, recent Iraqi films that have made it on big screens abroad overwhelmingly relate to terrorism and war, including Mohamad al-Daradji’s The Journey and Mohanad Hayal’s Haifa Street (also available on Netflix).
But there also seems to be a pushback from the Arab filmmaker community against these stereotypes imposed from abroad. In a recent interview, Rafia Oraidi, a Palestinian producer, explained, “We want to show there are lots of other stories in Palestine besides war, destruction and the occupation”.
In this context, having a film like Perfect Strangers on a global platform like Netflix can help counter problematic storylines and open more space for Arab cinema to make it big among international audiences. Perhaps the only barrier that exists at this time for Smayra’s film is that it has not been made available in English.
Given the recent success of foreign-language films like Parasite and shows like Squid Game, subtitle length should not be seen as a barrier to reaching international audiences. Netflix would do well to recognise this fact and make the film available to Anglophone audiences.
In any case, the release of Perfect Strangers was a step in the right for Arab cinema and streaming platforms like Netflix. It demonstrates that there is a growing awareness within the industry that the Middle East cannot be reduced to one-dimensional narratives about war and terror. Perhaps in the next few years, we will get to see more diverse films like Perfect Strangers, showing authentic Arab storylines, make it on a global scale.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.