‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’

 ‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’
The cast of 'Perfect Strangers.' Front Row (from left): Nadine Labaki, Mona Zaki, Diamand Bou Abboud. Back row: Fouad Yammine, Georges Khabbaz, Eyad Nassar, Adel Karam. (Netflix)
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Updated 25 January 2022

‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’

 ‘A milestone for Arab cinema’ — director and stars discuss ‘Perfect Strangers’
  • The first Arabic-language Netflix original movie has been a huge success both regionally and internationally thanks to stellar performances from the cast and its first-time director

DUBAI: It’s been a long time since an Arabic-language film has dominated conversation across the Arab world quite like “Perfect Strangers” currently is. The first original Arabic-language Netflix film — an adaptation of the award-winning Italian original of the same name — has been trending across the region since its launch on January 20, inspiring both overwhelming praise for its stellar performances and fierce debate over the questions it poses. 

“Perfect Strangers” was helmed by Lebanese director Wissam Smayra and features several of the region’s most-acclaimed actors, including Egypt’s Mona Zaki and Eyad Nassar alongside Lebanon’s Georges Khabbaz, Diamand Bou Abboud, Nadine Labaki, Adel Karam, and Fouad Yammine.




“Perfect Strangers” features several of the region’s most-acclaimed actors. (Netflix)

Set during a dinner party held by a group of Egyptian and Lebanese friends, the film revolves around a game in which each person puts their mobile phone on the table, exposing to the rest every call or message that they receive. What starts off as light fun quickly descends into dramatic chaos as painful truths come to light. 

The film has already stirred controversy on social media with some Twitter users accusing the movie of “moral degradation” and “putting Western ideas in a conservative society” — a claim the cast and crew thoroughly refute.

Much of the anger has originated in Egypt, according to the Hollywood Reporter, with one example being Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz who claimed that the movie is a “plot to disrupt Arab society.”

“The film touches on taboos, but it’s not about the taboos,” Zaki, the biggest star in Egyptian cinema, tells Arab News. “The main idea is about the privacy we hide in our phones, how we keep secrets from everyone around us, and how — for so many of us — even those who we are closest to know nothing about us.”

Bou Abboud defines the point of the film further: “It’s about exploring the exact limit to which we can reveal ourselves to the closest people around us and not be judged.” 

“We tackle each topic without (judgment),” adds Smayra. “We’re not trying to prove anything. We are just going into reality and focusing on the human interactions it inspires.” 

The film is a landmark in more ways than one, an eminently accessible mainstream drama that has immediately found a global audience, trending at the top of Netflix in countries including France and proving that Arab film is reaching a turning point both in terms of quality and widespread popularity, regionally and internationally. 




Lebanese director Wissam Smayra. (Netflix)

“Respect (for Arab film) is starting to really grow. And this is a milestone, I think,” says Labaki, the Oscar-nominated director of “Capernaum.” 

To achieve the naturalistic style of “Perfect Strangers,” Smayra approached the film much like a piece of theater, rehearsing the script from start to finish with his actors for weeks on end, and filming the entire project chronologically rather than out of order, as is the norm for most films.

During filming, Smayra and the cast would meet every day out of costume and without make up, running through that day’s 10-minute scene 20 to 30 times in a row for hours until it became second nature, before filming the scene that night.  

“This is when you know that you have amazing actors,” says Smayra. “It wasn’t normal — these were crazy, insane geniuses. I was witnessing something magic.

“We worked with two cameras. Each day, we would start shooting for three or four hours until it was done,” he continues. “It was insane. Afterwards I could see they were all drained.” 

“And that was even though we were all just sitting around a table!” says Zaki. “It was an emotional drain.”




Nadine Labaki and Georges Khabbaz on set. (Netflix)

“It was easy for me, though,” adds co-star Karam, who also starred in the Oscar-nominated film “The Insult,” with a smile. 

Part of the reason for most of the cast’s constant exhaustion was that, unlike most films, there were no breaks for the actors. Because of the multiple handheld cameras and the nature of the story, the troupe could never drop out of character.

“The way it was shot was very important. You had to be present the whole time — even if it's not your moment, even if you know you're not going to be talking for a while,” says Labaki. “We were present not only as characters but as ourselves, watching the performance of somebody else that is so real that you really feel you're in it, you really identify, and you start thinking about your own situation. It was really fascinating.”

Smayra, who, like Labaki, got his start directing music videos in Lebanon in the early 2000s, has worked with Labaki in the past, executive producing “Capernaum.” Though it was his first feature-length film, he was a soft-spoken but assured presence, and never leaned on his fellow director in the cast as others have. 

“I never felt I was working with a first-time director,” says Labaki. “I felt from the start that this was going to be great; I was in good hands. Because of that, my only concern became doing the best I can for the character, and for everybody else, because you feel like everybody's performing on such a high level. I felt like I needed to be up to the expectations, and up to the standard they were all setting. I really loved this whole adventure.” 




“Perfect Strangers” is an adaptation of the award-winning Italian original of the same name. (Netflix)

For Egyptian star Nassar, what was truly remarkable is how nothing was lost in translation, and all the power he felt in the moment remains on the screen in the final cut.

“I told Wissam, ‘You are a magician.’ As an actor, I knew the subtleties I had introduced while filming and I knew the best moments of the other actors,” he says. “Watching it, there are no missing moments. All the actors’ power was there, nothing lost in the editing. He was seeing everything. I’ve never seen that done so well.”

And Nassar says that, to his surprise, he left the set a changed performer. “After I finished ‘Perfect Strangers’ and got back to Egypt, I had a different style of acting,” he says. “Working with actors such as Georges Khabbaz allowed me to see other schools of acting.” 

Khabbaz, Lebanon’s most renowned stage actor, found the film uniquely challenging, though he ends up being the film’s quiet and soulful anchor and has received an outpouring of praise online for his performance.

“I am a man of the stage,” Khabbaz explains. “The stage has vast space, which allows you to express using all tools.  This role was different. It was difficult. To do it, I had to keep my emotions closer to my chest, and show them only in reactions. I tried to do this role as an Eastern man but maintaining the Western concept of the movie. For this performance, I became a man of reaction, not a man of action.”




The film is trending at the top of Netflix in countries including France. (Netflix)

While some of the discussion around the film has focused on why Arab cinema is producing remakes rather than crafting original stories, each cast member made sure that “Perfect Strangers” responded to that concern with gusto, crafting a true piece of art that stands as the best version of the concept — one possessed with a uniquely Arab spirit — rather than a lazy cash-in. 

“Throughout the filming, my inner question was: ‘Why are we making this movie?’ We constantly discussed how we could present this material as Eastern people for an Eastern audience,” says Nassar. “The answer lay in how the dilemma the film poses affects Eastern people uniquely. We ended up discovering during the whole filming process why we were doing the Arabic version of this movie. In the end, it was very clear to all of us, and it will be to audiences, as well.”


What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Updated 01 July 2022

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest works of literature. 
The novel, first published as a complete work in 1878, is centered around a love affair between Anna and Vronsky, a Russian military officer, with the book’s characters highlighting the conflict between socially accepted norms and human desire.  
Despite being married to Alexie Karenin, Anna has a scandalous affair with Vronsky and moves to Moscow with him. There they live together as a married couple. 
When he finds out about the affair, Anna’s husband gives her an ultimatum: Leave Vronsky and keep the family’s reputation intact — or never see her son again. 
Tolstoy is still revered as one of history’s greatest authors. 
Born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he was a master of realist fiction, and produced plays, essays and short stories. 
His most famous works include “War and Peace,” “Resurrection,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” 
Tolstoy received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906, and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909.


Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
Updated 01 July 2022

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
  • The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker on his moving refugee doc ‘Captains of Zaatari’ and future plans

DUBAI: Nearly 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentarian behind “Captains of Zaatari,” which hits Netflix this month, made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement of displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenaged boy he had just met named Fawzi Qatleesh asked if he could speak his truth to the camera.

“On the first day I arrived, he asked me, ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to the people outside of this camp.’ The second he started to talk, I said to myself, ‘This boy is my hero,’” El-Arabi tells Arab News.

Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted the people outside those fences to know the truth of the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he only wanted opportunity. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a years-long global festival tour, his promise is fulfilled.

“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. That was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made him on the first day. I told him to say what was in his heart, and I would tell everyone in the world his story. That has been my mission ever since,” says El-Arabi.

El-Arabi knew what it felt like to have a message that people needed to hear. He was himself once an athlete, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning Egypt’s national kickboxing championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sport, instead turning towards filmmaking.

“Captains of Zaatari” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

“I started to feel I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized filmmaking was the way I could say it. I started making small documentaries about what was happening and screening them in the street. One day, the police came and I took my film and I ran. That made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.” 

El-Arabi left Egypt, partnering with the ZDF TV channel to film documentaries in war zones including Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unfulfilling, as it so often stripped away the humanity of those caught in its horrors.

“Refugees and the victims in the war were all just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” El-Arabi says. “I couldn’t process it that way. These were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.” 

After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher — the two boys he would ultimately follow from the refugee camp in Jordan all the way to an elite soccer program in the Gulf — El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before whittling their story down to a scant 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while also refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

Nonetheless, the film is bursting with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments have come showing the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher and Qatleesh when he first found them.

“We screened it at a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came up to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that they could not only have dreams, they could achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.

Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of both young men whose story it follows.

“They’re stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs have watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” El-Arabi says. “The government of Jordan and the leaders in the camps respect them. Children in the camps are looking to them as role models. I speak to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, even though they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start delivering on their promise as soon as possible, and transforming their situation too.”

A still from El-Arabi's upcoming project “Ashish’s Journey.” (Supplied)

While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work over the last few years on another — “Ashish’s Journey” — about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. It is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar as he filmed “Captains of Zaatari.” 

“An Indian man came to me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a soccer player, and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” El-Arabi explains. “He told me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have money to come, so I came here to work now, so that I could meet the famous players one day. I thought you were one of them.’”

The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him to not only film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family back to India, even adding fictional elements (with Ashish playing himself) inspired by the classic French satirical novella “Candide” to the docu-film.

“He’s actually a very good actor,” El-Arabi says.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

While El-Arabi knows that he will finish filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he does not plan to rush the film out in the immediate aftermath of the event. 

“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush it for a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I’ve put into this — just to have something done fast,” he says. 

El-Arabi has other projects in the works as well. He’s currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing producing an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight.” Closest to his heart, though, is the fiction film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father. 

“We’re talking to major international stars (about) it,” he says. “It’s a story that takes a lot from my own experiences with my family, and nearly every time I pitch it to people they cry. One person I work closely with, as soon as I finished, said they had to leave room to call their father.”

While telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career moving forward, ultimately what drives him is not capturing his identity — it’s capturing his soul. 

“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think a lot about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think about humans. That’s all I’m interested in.”


The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos
Updated 01 July 2022

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

PARIS: A new exhibition at Paris’ Louvre Museum illustrates the longstanding cultural relationship between France and Lebanon.

“Byblos et le Louvre,” which runs until Sept. 11, is a unique display of archaeological artifacts from the Lebanese seaport town of Byblos (also known as Jbeil), one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. 

Visitors will find ceramic jars, small figurines, cuneiform tablets, and ancient weapons on display, some of which are thousands of years old. Despite their age, many of the items are in remarkably good condition. 

Ensemble figurines votives, Byblos Musée du Louvre, Raphaël Chipault. (Supplied)

“What is amazing is the pottery, which looks like it’s been made yesterday,” Tania Zaven, an archaeologist of Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, told Arab News. 

For Louvre archaeologist Julien Chanteau, who was on site during recent excavations, Byblos is a hugely significant site with a lot of stories to tell. 

“It’s a very small site, maybe six hectares. But you can read all the history of mankind there, from the Neolithic period until today,” Chanteau said. “Byblos is like a book. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

“You have all cultures and civilizations: The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Arabs have all left traces on this site,” he continued. “It’s very impressive for an archeologist to have such an amount of information. It’s like a chronicle of humanity.” 

Under Napoleon III, the first French-led excavations in Byblos began in 1860, led by scholar Ernest Renan. He brought many objects back to France, and released detailed publications of the excavation. 

Excavations have continued to the present day — although they were interrupted in the Seventies because of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2018, a scientific excavation program was relaunched, pairing archaeologists and experts from the Louvre Museum and the DGA. They have explored the area’s royal underground chambers, tombs, and temples. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

Zaven noted some of the challenges of undertaking archeological missions in Lebanon, including security and looting. “Every day we are working against illicit trafficking,” she said. “We wanted to have this exhibition to show that Lebanon is still here. We believe in our culture and we want our culture to stay alive.” 

In October, the exhibition will travel to a museum in the Dutch city of Leiden. It will also be exhibited, next spring, in an old house in Byblos, coming full circle. 


Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 
Updated 01 July 2022

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

DUBAI: Arab Men’s Fashion Week came to a close on Thursday with Dubai-based label Amato presenting the final show. 

This is Filipino designer Furne One’s ninth time closing an edition of the Dubai-based fashion week. 

The founder of the brand presented various designs in a spectrum of colors, inspired by the bold and bright hues of India. 

A complete turnaround from his previous men’s collection, which featured all-white ensembles, this season, the designer went back to the brand’s roots with colorful fabrics and experimental silhouettes.

Materials included lace, tulle, silk, cotton and leather. 

“I was fascinated by the idea of having a moment of realization and celebration,” One said in a released statement.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Maison Du Mec (@maisondumec)

His aim was to intensify the senses and make the audience look at the details of each garment — the silhouette, the neckline and the surface decoration — rather than focusing on “looks.” 

“I was also inspired by India’s diversity — from culture, religion, languages, geography and everything in between,” he added. “Their unique differences while building one nation really inspires me — I want to dig deeper and find out how this uniqueness made them create dimensional colors that we only see within our naked eyes.”

The event, which kicked off on June 28, presented the Spring/Summer 2023 collections of more than 10 regional and international designers, including Lebanese brand Maison du Mec, London-based label Permu, Beirut fashion house Tagueule and Dubai-based couturier Michael Cinco. 

The first day of the fashion week kicked off with a collaboration between Swiss tech accessories brand Ferronato and Maison du Mec that was a mash up between fashion and technology.

The collaboration featured soft leather backpacks, micro smartphone cases, multi-functional clutches and slouchy drawstring bags in shades of blue and burgundy. A life size robotic dog, representing Ferronato’s innovative accessories, closed the show.

For Permu, designers Heyun Pan and Jing Qian presented daily ensembles and occasion wear that featured skin-tight tops, bucket hats, backwards-facing blazers and jackets with cut slits, puffed sleeves and exaggerated shoulder pads. 

Tagueule’s silky trousers and shirts in monochrome shades were featured on the same runway as vests and cargo pants outfitted with utilitarian pockets and straps.

Cinco’s designs were marked by a sunset color gradient ranging from orange and yellow to black. Capes and kandoras were a salute to Emirati culture, while an array of smart, sporty sets spoke to a wider clientele.


The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Updated 01 July 2022

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
  • From an Algerian indie veteran and Lebanese newcomers to Libyan trap-pop and Egyptian ‘mind-map art,’ here are six regional artists making waves with their work

Souad Massi

‘Dessine-Moi Un Pays’ 

The Algerian singer-songwriter’s first single from her upcoming tenth album “Sequana” is a deceptively simple folk-tinged ballad — stripped back but with a beautifully subtle acoustic guitar line over which Massi’s emotive, yearning vocals fit perfectly. Syrian flautist Naïssam Jalal adds an impressive solo. The song’s title translates as “Draw Me A Land,” and Massi said in a press release that it was inspired by exile. “Those people who (clung) to planes leaving Kabul when the Taliban returned — it was for them that I wrote this song,” she explained. “Whilst rooted in France, there is a sense the song is filled with memories of a lost Algeria and of her childhood,” the release states.

Yazan Abu Salameh

‘Bending Toward The Sun’

The Palestinian artist’s solo exhibition is available to view in 3D online until July 30, courtesy of Ramallah’s Zawyeh Gallery. The show’s title is a reference to how plants seek light, but Abu Salameh’s works are concerned with finding the light in Palestine’s densely built-up towns, where expansion is restricted by the occupation. His ink paintings reference Israel’s “Seperation Wall” and other military structures. The show includes “Gift Box 3,” shown here.

“The sun dominates Abu Salameh’s artworks and appears in the background overlooking structures of concrete,” the gallery’s press release explains. “The melancholy of the urban environment and the overwhelming presence of concrete as a byproduct of the military occupation overshadows the works.” Abu Salameh’s boxes of “congested buildings with little white windows” are left partly open “as if the towns desire to escape confinement.”  

Felula 

‘Seket’ (live)

Recorded during Felula’s performance for the 10th anniversary celebrations of Beirut Jam Sessions, this funky Arabic pop track shows off the duo’s knack for laying earworm-y hooks under Sara Abdo’s understated-but-powerful vocals. The show was actually Abdo and guitarist Roger Zouein’s first performance as Felula, but they played like they’d been doing it for years.