Amr Salama, the director of the movie “Asmaa,” about the woman contemplating publicly admitting that she has AIDS, had never met an HIV-positive patient when he started the project seven years ago. When he began working on the film as a 28-year-old, he feared that he’d contract the virus just by coming in contact with HIV patients.
It was on a train ride back from Alexandria, where he witnessed a furtive meeting of HIV patients, that he conceived of his film, after hearing scores of stories from people seemingly just like him, and he settled on the woman the group spoke about, who’d just died. She was an average Egyptian, a cleaner at the airport, who was forced to resign when her co-workers learned that she was HIV-positive. Before she died, despite the objections of her family, she thought about going public with her struggles.
Getting funding for the project was difficult. So was finding actors. He forced those who played HIV-positive patients to meet carriers of the virus. Those who played everyday Egyptians weren’t allowed to meet carriers, to keep them in character, he said. The government almost didn’t allow him to film a scene at the airport where Asmaa’s co-workers voted that she should resign, leaving money on the floor for her out of embarrassment over what they’d done. Even once permission was granted, Salama’s crew was allowed only limited time to film.
He rewrote the script more than 30 times, he said, the storyline evolving as he learned more about the issue. At one point, he featured a homosexual character, but he cut him out at the last minute, fearing the audience couldn’t handle it. In the film, Asmaa contracts the virus from her husband, who was infected when he was raped in prison. Through all the rewrites, the end of the movie stayed the same, Salama said: Asmaa appears on television and tells the audience, “When I die, it will be because of your illness, not mine.”
The first screening of the film was on Jan. 24, 2011, the day before the uprising here against the former regime of Hosni Mubarak began.
“ ‘Asmaa’ was such a discovery for me. It was about finding a character I would have never met in real life,” Salama said. “It was about society. Society was one of the main characters of the film. It was the villain.”
The movie is hard to find here. It didn’t play at major movie houses. It isn’t part of the nation’s cinema lexicon. But Salama said he was optimistic that change was coming.
“We think if we say we have a problem it will smear the image of Egypt. If we do an awareness campaign, that means we have a problem,” Salama said. “We are in a period of self-evaluation. There is a dynamic happening. You can feel it in the air.”
So far, however, there’s no change within the medical community.
At Cairo’s Imbaba Hospital, a public facility, one doctor, Amir al Masry, said HIV patients arrived there daily. Many have treated themselves incorrectly, rendering the medication ineffective. Shortages are only worse since Morsi was elected, Masry said: “There is no trust between the patient and the Ministry of Health. The patients accuse the ministry of stealing the money and the ministry accuses the patients of trying to draw sympathy.”