Details: 96 mins, Egypt,
Synopsis: Asmaa (Hend Sabri), a woman with HIV, suffers from the feelings of social seclusion and fear of her illness being exposed. For months, she has been suffering from a benign infection and due to her illness, no doctor has agreed to carry out the surgery that could easily treat her. Asmaa must find a solution before her condition becomes fatal.
A touching take on living with HIV.
The picture has an eye for small asides and telling elements in the supporting characters
ARAB FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: Amr Salama’s Asmaa, a film that explores the unexpected prices to doing what you believe is right, is a carefully calibrated intertwining of mysteries. The most important are not answered until the final act of this strongly made drama, but they begin from the first scene in a story “inspired by true events”, with a therapy session shot with a smoky, de-saturated look that makes those present almost as otherworldly as they feel in contemporary Cairo. The group meeting alternates with a woman nervously awaiting surgery – “act dumb” her fixer commands – and it’s only when the woman is seen at the therapy session, where she declares, “I don’t take any medicine, my immunity is still okay,” that you realise she is HIV-positive.
The woman – mournful, worried, prone to scuttling – is Asmaa (Hend Sabry), and she is caught in multiple dilemmas raised by her infection. (Throughout the film the term used is AIDS, which may show just how difficult life in Egypt is for those who are infected.) She has a gall bladder problem that requires simple corrective surgery, but because of her condition fearful doctors refuse to operate on her, and without the surgery she will die. If she doesn’t present her medical records to her employers at Cairo’s airport, where she’s a cleaner, Asmaa will be fired. While at home her teenage daughter, Habiba, has no idea of her mother’s predicament, and focuses instead on her own acts of rebellion.
This is Salama’s second dramatic feature (he also made a Tahir Square documentary last year), and with cinematographer Ahmed Gabr he plots it with precision, alternating stock and colour schemes in the manner of Steven Soderbergh to delineate time and place. In the flashback to when Asmaa lived in the country with her father, before she was married, the palette is vivid and Sabry plays the younger woman with a lust for life that attracts the husband, Mosaad (Hany Adel) whose absence is noticeable in the present day.
The picture has an eye for small asides and telling elements in the supporting characters, particularly a television presenter, Mohsen (Maged El Kedwany), who from a position of prestige and wealth campaigns on his show Hot Tin Plate for the disadvantaged. Rotund, and not without ego (he’s seen reading with dismay the comments on a YouTube thread of an uploaded segment), wants more from his staff and guests, and is adamant that if Asmaa wants to tell her story she will have to reveal her face, a move that could put her very life in danger.
As the film goes on, and various mysteries are solved on the way to a major one, how Asmaa became infected, it ratchets up several plot twists that verge on the melodramatic, but Salama’s direction and Sabry’s performance keep the movie anchored. Even when the resolutions multiply in the present and the past, the story keeps coming back to a woman whose first instinct is to help others and sacrifice herself. That turns out to be part of the cause of why she got infected, but even as the debates about whether she should appear on television become didactic the fundamental desires remain compelling.
Asked why she would risk outing herself on national television, Asmaa calmly replies, “I have nothing to lose.”
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