After winning Best Director from the Arab World and Best Actor at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Amr Salama’s Asmaa, Egypt’s first feature film to tackle the social stigma surrounding HIV/Aids, has hit Cairo’s cinemas.
The film tells the story of Asmaa, a middle-aged Egyptian woman who lives with her father and daughter in a poor Cairo suburb. She needs a simple operation on her gall bladder to save her life, but doctors refuse to treat her because she is HIV positive. As she struggles to pay the rent and bring up her teenage daughter on her own, she is at a loss as to what to do, until she is approached by a charismatic television presenter who tries to convince her to call out for help on national television. Torn between her desire to live and her dread of disclosing her secret to her daughter and a judgmental society that associates HIV with promiscuity, Asmaa is adamant that, on principle, she will not disclose how she caught the disease.
Asmaa stars Tunisian actress Hend Sabry as Asmaa, up-and-coming Egyptian actor Hany Adel as her husband, and Egyptian actor Maged el-Kedwany as the television presenter, a role for which he won Best Actor at the 2011 Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy from Film Clinic and Egyptian actress Bushra Rozza, who also produced and acted in Cairo 678, a film tackling sexual harassment, both produced the film that was awarded in Abu Dhabi in October and, this month, honoured by the World Health Organisation for promoting human rights in the health sector.
Young writer and director Amr Salama, who had already made a documentary about Aids for the United Nations in 2005, spoke to 25 people living with HIV to make the film. He crafted Asmaa’s tale from the stories that touched and haunted him the most. Weaving in parallel the tale of the young spirited Asmaa who falls in love and marries in the countryside and that of her older quieter self battling social prejudice in the metropolis, he reaches out to the audience in a human story of courage, dignity, and love.
The best compliment that he has received so far about the film, he told Euromed Audiovisuel, was someone writing to him on Twitter: “I want to meet a person with HIV to shake hands and hug them.”
“In the late eighties or early nineties there were advertisements on the Egyptian TV to raise people's awareness about AIDS,” wrote blogger Tarek Amr after seeing the film. “But the problem with those TV ads is that they tended to scare people instead of really educating them. They were full of bats, blood, people scaring [sic], others taking drugs via injection and prostitutes who resemble devils. It was scary to the extent that even after reading more about the disease, and knowing it's only transmitted via blood, you still feel worried to shake hands with those who have it... And now, about 20 years later, there is that film called Asmaa which tries to break all those misconceptions.”
To evaluate changes in public awareness, the UNAIDS Egypt is rallying Twitter and Facebook users who have seen the film to fill in a survey online.
Salama hopes that his second feature film will have an impact in Egypt and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, but he is in no hurry. He says that only when the film is broadcast on television will it reach the vast majority of the Egyptian population, of which many don’t have the means to go to the cinema but have a television.
“When it goes on television, I am sure that this film will have more impact,” he said.
Beyond society’s irrational fear of Aids, Asmaa is also incredibly relevant to the current climate in Egypt, Salama told Euromed Audiovisuel.
“Right now, we live afraid,” he said. “Each one of us is afraid of the other. The authorities can kill us, rape us, humiliate us, but we the society are the ones making ourselves feel like strangers in our own country.”
Also showing in Egyptian cinemas this December is Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad, and The Politician, an award-winning documentary about Egypt’s January revolution and the first documentary ever to be released in Egyptian theatres, in which Salama directs the third part, an intelligent and humorous exploration of how to become a dictator.
Salama has been following audience feedback on this film too, and said that some anti-regime activists had criticized him for interviewing former members of the regime. But Salama said that it was important for him to speak to both sides.
“If you are going to make a film about Hitler, you have to interview the Nazis,” he said.
Asmaa is Salama’s second feature film after the critically-acclaimed A Day Like Today in 2008. In the new year, he will take Asmaa to the Palm Springs International Film Festival in the US.
And his next film? It could be one from any of his scripts about religious discrimination, police brutality, corruption, and cheating.
“Each of them talks about an issue that I really care about and am angry at,” he said. “I just hope for time and money.”