In «friends and not dearest» all problems are sexual. A rebellious teen wants sex with her boyfriend, bored wives and husbands, husbands cheating on and wives cheating on their husbands, a gay person in a complicated relationship with his friend and socially excluded because of his homosexuality. The problems are not just sexual, they are purely sexual. Sex here is presented in isolation from all the other problems of our lives, when in fact, sex is not something we practice outside of our lives, but is part of that life in all its dimensions. Our professional conditions, our social classes, our political concerns, and whatever you might think of.
For example, this film takes place in Lebanon. A society that suffers from a long-standing historical problem at the core of its composition, which is the sectarian division. It is true that a society in some of its regions and categories may be more liberal than other Arab societies, but that does not mean that the sectarian issue is absent in the emotional/sexual relations between its sons. The heroes of the film do not belong to all of that, they are stripped of all those social affiliations and what affects the lives of their owners. There is not even a trace of an economic crisis that has afflicted this country for years and crushed its population of different segments (except perhaps for a very limited segment on its head) in the lives of the movie’s “nationality” heroes.
“My Friends and My Neighbors” belongs to a dramatic and cinematic style that has spread recently, centering around the lifestyle of the higher social class or classes. The spread of this artistic genre cannot be separated from its approval by the production authorities (the Arab authorities have recently become the main direct product in the Arab art industry). Socially unconcerned (in her review of the film on the site here, the film’s writer described its defense as an “entertaining” film, which is more significant when it is described as a work of art apart from any other artistic descriptions.)
The film is also an extension of a well-known progressive/liberal discourse presented by “Netflix” and has specific features. First, it centers around sexual and gender liberties, followed by some new progressive themes, such as encouraging people to go to a psychotherapist and even criticizing technology and social media. Secondly, it presents these freedoms in isolation from any other social issues, as this sexual life does not intersect with political oppression, economic conditions, or the nature of the professional life of the personalities. It is a politically secure progressivism, and it is an emancipation that is socially restricted to those who can pay for it.
“Netflix” does not leave you with a choice but the progressive package: “Take it or leave it”, the matter is yours. “It’s yours,” this is the tone chanted by progressive Arab intellectuals, some of whom claim to be on the left. “It is a paid platform that you own. If you want to cancel your subscription to it, what is bothering you?” A phrase that a liberal who is aware of market mechanisms cannot say, let alone a leftist who assumes that his opponent is the authority of capital based on a “free” contract between the worker and the capitalist. “Netflix” is not a free choice, it is today the most important film and drama production platform around the world. It imposes its reach on the consumer as much as it imposes itself on making the artwork itself and defining its features.
What doubles this power of “Netflix” is certainly the dominance of Arab authoritarians in recent years over artistic production and marketing.
Recently, we have become accustomed to waves of public discontent with this kind of art that is spreading, and it is understandable by conservative societies (and all societies are actually conservative in a certain sense). Easy demagoguery of this kind. The intellectual is sometimes embarrassed by this authoritarian onslaught and is forced to defend works of art in which he may not be convinced (it is not easy every time for a defender to distinguish in the midst of a heated battle between his principled biased stance on freedom of expression and his critical stance on the artwork in battle).
What should be noted here is that these works of art and their makers are not the weakest party in the battle as they are portrayed, but rather they are a party that has an authority that is no less than the power of the conservative authority, and may even surpass their authority in the long run. “Netflix” is not the weak independent producer that is being stifled, but rather a platform that is able to come and impose itself against the nose of any fraudulent official or politician in our countries trying to gain a point on it in a populist battle.
Many intellectuals are drawn further to insulting the public, which has become one of the cultural fashions, recently, in contrast to the old tendency towards the reverence of the public as well by the intellectuals. The public no longer has the right to feel even cultural malaise toward any work of art, otherwise it has to face the ready-made blackmail with lists of the most outlandish crimes after which the public has to shut up about criticizing anything it doesn’t like. This cheap blackmail by intellectuals only reminds the public of the policy of blackmail practiced by the security services against political activists when they try to bring them down by revealing the secrets of their private lives, which may actually include mistakes they make as any human being makes mistakes. (Not only in our countries. In the United States, one of the bastions of progressivism, the details of the real and false private life and sexuality of progressive MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were the subject of a right-wing attack with the aim of bringing her down.)
When the intellectual exaggerates his belief in the public, he in fact cancels his role and exposes himself to betrayal, but when he attacks and transcends this audience, he also cuts off his connection with it, and leaves it easy prey in front of the most extremist and fraudulent currents. The intellectual cannot be an enemy of society, nor can it certainly be its tail.
The task of the artwork is certainly not to please the public. Rather, provoking the audience may be a necessary tax in order for the artist to present his social criticism or liberating values. But it is not the job of the artist, critic or intellectual after that to curse this audience and accuse it of reaction if it objects to it. Rather, he has to face that with courage to defend his values without twisting or turning. If the public is disturbed by homosexuality, then the artist’s task is not to calibrate the disturbed audience with the harassment and rape pervasive among them, but rather to explain his position and values to the audience without arrogance.