Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2011
Issue No. 1076
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Slick propaganda

Hani Mustafa engages with the first Egyptian take on the epidemic of the age

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Stills from Asmaa

Many Egyptian film viewers have grown accustomed, since the mid-20th century, to a kind of cinema that employs cheap melodrama in the service of an issue or topic. No doubt melodrama is still the most powerful drawing factor in narrative cinema; and in this context it is important to distinguish between that kind of melodrama and the more epic and serious kind -- exemplified in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy -- which draws on tragedy, an art form that has stirred deeper emotions, without compromising aesthetic and intellectual considerations or resorting to the kind of raw superficiality that characterises melodrama, since ancient times.

Still, it is enough to make a filmmaker feel triumphant when he sees one of his tawdry scenes jerking the tears of viewers; the director seeks the easiest way of playing on emotions, and in this respect he is no different from a director who, through a certain kind of equally cheap contemporary comedy -- next to melodrama, the most powerful pillar of commercial cinema -- plays on the viewers' mind. The difference may in fact be a hair's breath, in some cases -- and so the positive aspect of melodrama, serious drama with epic or tragic qualities, in addition to guaranteeing the viewers' attention, presents the serious director with a great challenge.

Following Zai Enneharda (2008), Asmaa is the second full-length feature by the young filmmaker Amr Salama -- who also wrote the script. It seems at first sight that the film concerns people with AIDS and the stigma they suffer, yet Salama bases his work on a true story which he employs in, as it were, putting forth on this controversial issue, and moving onto abstract notions of love and devotion. It is after all the first Arab film to deal with the reality of AIDS, avoiding the kind of lies and urban legends that have contributed so much to the kind of misinformation about AIDS that many Egyptians have been subject to.

Films about AIDS in the past (Ahmad Fouad's 1992 "Love in Taba", for example) have tended to muddle the facts in favour of cheap hysteria, showing complete ignorance of the disease and often confusing its transfer with the popular conspiracy theory which holds that all ill comes from Israel: HIV is transferred to young Egyptians by infected female Mossad agents in Taba.

Asmaa employs flashback, opening with Asmaa (Hind Sabry) -- the heroine -- on the point of having gall surgery, having kept the fact that she is HIV positive from the doctors at the hospital, letting them know at the last minute. They then refuse to perform the surgery. The reason behind the infection is kept from the viewer until the end of the film, with different episodes of Asmaa's life coming and going in a non-linear fashion. At first we encounter a country girl helping her father (Sayed Ragab) sell rugs at the village market, who makes the acquaintance of Mossaad (Hani Adel), a young villager and army conscript serving his term in Central Security.

Liking each other they end up married; past conventional dramatic obstacles like failure to conceive and Mossaad's absolutely evil brother, who looks down on Asmaa because her family owns no land -- such two-dimensional characters are a typical drawback of melodrama -- the film builds up to a climax that depends wholly on coincidence, yet another failure of the film: while defending Asmaa from an abusive vendor at the village market, Mossaad ends up killing the man by mistake; he goes to prison for manslaughter. It later turns out that he contracts HIV there and, without disclosing the information, refuses to have sex with Asmaa -- the mystery of Asmaa's infection.

There are two dramatic lines in the film. The first, which takes place in the past, reveals how Asmaa contracts HIV, how she gives birth to her daughter Hala, and how Mossaad dies. In this line the extent of the violence of Asmaa's brother-in-law, who uses AIDS as a pretext for kicking Asmaa and her daughter out of the village altogether in order to monopolise his brother's possessions as his heir.

The second dramatic line is so filled with preaching and moralising it turns the film into an audiovisual comment piece on the importance of treating AIDS victims well and the necessity of removing the stigma associated with the disease. A definite defect in filmmaking despite its positive content: in the scene where the psychiatrist (Boutros Ghali) attempts to rehabilitate a group of AIDS patients including Asmaa, the film loses sight of the drama altogether. Another manifestation of that discourse is the inclusion of a Amr Adib-like, pesky talk show host (Maged El-Kidwany), whose work embodies the ultimate confrontation between Asmaa and society, a society that can or should and so far will not accept a chronically ill person who has the right to work, live and receive treatment.

The acting is as conventional as the drama, with everything revolving around a single super character and everything consequently dependent on Sabry's performance. Sabry does indeed have extraordinary abilities as an actress, but there is little or no room in the story of a conventional protagonist facing crises bravely for such abilities to come through. Asmaa is the generic Heroine -- strong woman, devoted wife -- and there is nothing Sabry could do to make this more interesting. Asmaa, what is more, has ideas and beliefs well beyond the scope of the country girl she is supposed to be.

Two months ago at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, El-Kidwany received the best actor award even though everyone was in a state of anticipation, expecting the prize to go to Sabry.

Apart from the fragmentary approach of flashback, there is nothing vaguely interesting or new about this film. Even the happy ending, with both Hala and Asmaa, despite their circumstances and Hala's alleged bad reputation, receiving suitors. Combining melodrama with preaching in the haloed Egyptian tradition, Asmaa ends up being little more than slick propaganda that may work well as part of a civil society AIDS campaign.

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