Though AIDS may seem old-hat to some, it’s good to be reminded that it remains a hot-button topic, and not just among so-called developing nations. Amr Salama’s sophomore feature, “Asmaa,” is pitched as a brave story for the Arab world, but no such reductionism is required for this fact-based tale of an HIV-positive woman who went public with the disease on a chatshow. Salama has crafted a solid issue pic, featuring strong perfs and a suitably emotional finale, which should do robust biz at home and could benefit from current interest in Egypt abroad.
More than a film about a disease, “Asmaa” is a call for empowerment that ultimately works as an accessible pic for general auds rather than jaded fest types. As such, it’s not above using flashy cross-cutting and a bit of melodramatic frippery to deepen the protag’s character and highlight her emotional trajectory, though it generates real power in scenes marked by a rawer clarity.
A rapid succession of edits generates a sense of urgency in the life of Asmaa (Hend Sabry), a 45-year-old widow living with father Hosni (Sayed Ragab) and teen daughter Habiba (Fatma Adel). While being wheeled in for gallbladder surgery, she’s counseled to keep mum about some information, but at the last minute she reveals she’s HIV-positive, and doctors refuse to operate.
During a support-group meeting, she’s approached by a TV producer who tells her that appearing on a talkshow will guarantee national attention and the sympathy of ethical doctors willing to perform the simple yet critical procedure. But the host, Mohsen (Maged El Kedwany), doesn’t want another anonymous presence and insists she reveal her face. This becomes Asmaa’s real struggle: Go public, even though Habiba doesn’t know, or remain fearful and in danger of death from a treatable condition that has nothing to do with AIDS. One thing is certain: She won’t reveal how she contracted the virus.
At the start, Asmaa is uncertain and timid, scraping together a living as an airport janitor and focusing far too much energy on keeping things hidden (she’s asymptomatic). It wasn’t always like this: In flashbacks to her native village, she’s outspoken and independent, winning the admiration of Mosaad (Hany Adel). They’re married, but her strong-willed nature causes friction in their conservative town, and an ensuing tragedy drives her to Cairo, where she’s determined to keep her scarf-covered head down.
Helmer Salama (whose playfully ironic segment “The Politician” is a memorable part of the Venice-preemed docu “Tahrir 2011”) moves back and forth in time to fill out Asmaa’s character and background, underscoring the way ignorance breeds fear. Scenes in the village have a level of soapy artificiality that may not connect with Western viewers, but the realism of the present-day packs an emotional punch for all, thanks to the inevitable swell of support for a likable character standing up for herself; the woman the pic is based on wasn’t so lucky.
“Asmaa” is a gift for star Sabry, who fully inhabits the contradictions of a woman whose path from passionate and independent young bride to tense, cowed widow is marked by satisfying moments of fire. She’s also given a chance to prove her flawless comic timing, revealing a side all-too-rarely used in recent years outside TV. El Kedwany (“Cairo 678”) again proves he’s a talent almost from another time, when character actors exuded complexity and made devoted auds smile with each screen appearance.
Toward the emotional buildup to the will-she-or-won’t-she climax, the editing has difficulty finding the right rhythm, undercutting the tension with too many scenes from the past until, just when things seem too stretched, Salama finds the right balance and rides it for a suitably affecting payoff. Color tones are carefully calibrated to distinguish between time frames, with a golden light suffusing village scenes contrasting with an icier blue in Cairo.
Salama picked up the Abu Dhabi fest’s Arab helmer award, while El Kedwany took home the actor prize.