As Cairo marked World AIDS Day on 1 December, Hussein A. Gezairy, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, presented the first WHO
Who’s the sick one?
As Cairo marked World AIDS Day on 1 December, Hussein A. Gezairy, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, presented the first WHO Regional Office film award to the Tunisian-born film actress Hind Sabry who played the leading role in the film Asmaa’. Ms Sabry received the award on behalf of herself and the team who worked on the film, the first Egyptian production to tackle the suffering and stigmatision of AIDS victims.
The award acknowledges the film’s pioneering work in promoting human rights on health issues. Its release was timely, Dr Gezairy noted, with the theme of the film in line with the theme of this year’s regional campaign—stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV in health care settings—told through the true story of an Egyptian woman living with HIV. Dr Gezairy congratulated the film’s writer and director, Amr Salama, and the cast for this valuable work.
After receiving her award Ms Sabry said she had gained insight into the suffering of HIV-AIDS patients by interviewing AIDS victims of different ages.
Based on true stories which Mr Salama collected over a period of three years, Asmaa’ is not a film about AIDS but rather, as he says: “It’s rather about love, courage, overcoming fear and fighting for personal rights.”
Asmaa’ is an HIV-AIDS patient in her 40s. She is a country woman who in her youth had helped her father make and sell rugs in the village market, where she meets Mossaad, a young villager (played by actor Hani Adel).
They fall in love, and end up married. One day in the market Mossaad gets into a fight with a vendor who is abusing Asmaa’ and accidentally kills him. For this he is imprisoned for manslaughter. It later turns out that while in prison he contracted the HIV. Once he is freed and is back home, he refuses to have sex with his wife, for fear of infecting her with the virus. Asmaa’ is pained by his [inexplicable] decision until, unable to take her suffering any more, Mossaad tells her the truth. She decides to stick with him and later, as she realises he is dying, insists on having a baby by him despite the infection. Mossaad dies, Asmaa’ catches the virus, but the baby daughter is born healthy. The only person who knows about her illness is her father.
Asmaa’ lives with the disease for years, and eventually leaves her village to Cairo with her teenage daughter and her father. In Cairo, she lives in an area of randomly-built housing and finds a job as a cleaner at the Cairo Airport. She hides the medical reports about her disease from her managers to avoid losing her job.
Concealing her face
Asmaa’s real tragedy begins when she discovers that she is dying from a failing gallbladder, and needs to have surgery. First she hides the fact of her disease from the doctors, and when they find out they refuse to operate.
At this point, a physician-cum-talk show host, Mohsen, (masterfully played by the Egyptian actor Maged al-Kidwany) appears. He presents thorny health-related issues on his programme, hosting patients who talk freely about their illnesses. After hesitating to appear on the show, Asmaa’ decides to go on in an effort to gain funding for her operation.
Mohsen insists that Asmaa’ reveals her face to the audience, but she wishes to remain anonymous; she cannot take the social stigma, the widespread prejudice and the alienation of HIV patients.
First, cure thyself
In the meantime, word gets around at her work that Asmaa’ has AIDS. Despite the fact that it would be illegal to dismiss her because of her infection, Asmaa’ herself takes the decision to leave since she could not stand the stigma. Her manager, however, hoping to give her a chance to stay on, decides to take votes from her colleagues on the matter. Despite totally sympathising with her, Asmaa’s colleagues unanimously agree that she should not go on working with them. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, her co-workers collect money to help her, but none of them can gather the courage to physically hand it to her. Finally, a female colleague runs after her as she leaves, calls her, and places the money on the ground for her to collect. Even more moving is that Asmaa’ looks on for a minute then decides to swallow her self-pride and pick up the collection which she then uses to buy the costly painkillers she needs.
At that point, Asmaa’ decides it is futile to remain anonymous and appears with her real identity and non-hazed face on TV. Her words stir the sympathy of the audience, and a doctor agrees to perform the surgery.
“In real life, the woman in the fact-based story died because her gallbladder burst,” Mr Salama said.
At the end of the TV show in the film, Asmaa’ fully faces the audience and says: “If I die, it won’t be because I am sick; it will be because you are.”