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This year’s Palm Springs Film Festival featured a section called “Arabian Nights” highlighting recent Arabian cinema. The movies from Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and other countries reflect the newfound openness expressed in the revolts throughout the Arab world during the last year. One of the strongest movies in this series, and indeed one of the best in the entire festival, is the Egyptian film Asmaa, about an HIV-positive woman who confronts the taboos of her society with unexpected courage.
Asmaa (beautifully played by Hend Sabry) at first glance seems like anything but a firebrand. She works at a menial job at the Cairo airport to help support her teenage daughter and aging father. Although she belongs to an HIV support group, she is hesitant to reveal much about herself to others in the group. She has already been penalized for her honesty; she was scheduled to have gall bladder surgery, but when the doctors learned of her condition, they refused to perform the operation. When a sensationalistic TV producer asks if any member of the group might be willing to go on television to discuss this stigmatized disease, Asmaa contemplates breaking her silence.
Writer-director Amr Salama interrupts this present-day story with flashbacks to Asmaa’s earlier life in the countryside, when she first met the man who became her husband. Here we see a more spirited, rebellious young woman who defies her father as well as co-workers in the marketplace. Sabry catches the character’s saucy personality without idealizing her. These flashbacks contain a mystery of their own as they gradually reveal surprising details as to how Asmaa became infected with the AIDS virus. Suspense builds during these flashbacks and during the present-day scenes in which the heroine wrestles with the consequences of going public with her condition. She understands the risks of openness in a country where most people deny the existence of AIDS, describing it as a decadent Western disease.
While the film was made on a modest budget, it moves gracefully between past and present and incorporates a vivid variety of characters. The talk show host (Maged El Kedwani) seems at first glance to be a volatile, opportunistic hustler, but he comes to feel genuine concern for Asmaa. Similarly, Asmaa’s father is a rigid, judgmental figure who rises to support his daughter when she needs an ally. This controversial, eloquent drama builds to a heart-wrenching finale.
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Cast: Hend Sabry, Maged El Kedwani, Hani Adel, Ahmad Kamal, Sayed Ragab, Botros Ghali.
Director-screenwriter: Amr Salama.
Producer: Mohamed Hefzy.
Director of photography: Ahmed Gabr.
Production designer: Hend Haider.
Editor: Amr Salah El din.
No rating, 96 minutes.
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