Asma'a director deplores Aids stigma

Amr Salama hopes his hard-hitting new film about a widow in Egypt with HIV will help correct 'misconceptions and lies' about the Aids virus in the Arab world.

The Gear House lighting designer and technician Naveen Banger adjusts lights for a panel at the film festival yesterday.
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ABU DHABI // The director of a hard-hitting film about a mother who is HIV-positive said last night that he hoped it would correct what he described as misconceptions and lies about the Aids virus in the Arab world.

Amr Salama was speaking at the world premiere of Asma'a at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The film's stars, Hend Sabry and Maged El Kedwani, were joined by VIPs and guests wearing red Aids-awareness ribbons as they made their way along the red carpet at the Abu Dhabi Theatre.

"Raising awareness about Aids is the main target. If it does nothing but that then I'll be very grateful," said Salama, from Egypt, who also wrote the script. "There are misconceptions and lies told about the disease and a lot of people are dying from the misconceptions more than the lack of treatment.

"For example, in Egypt we think it's a punishment from God and we should not treat it. We think that they get it from a sin so they deserve it, and we think it's very contagious so we don't deal with them in any way. So people die from that more than they die from anything else."

Sabry, who plays the title role of an HIV-stricken Egyptian widow with a teenage son, said she had to think hard before taking on such a controversial role.

"It's a very complicated part," she said. "It is very risky for an actress to be associated with Aids in the Arab world. I'm not saying I'm brave but I don't think it was an easy decision.

"But I'm very proud of Amr and I'm very proud of all of us because it wasn't easy with all the stigma.

"It's media-made, the stigma about Aids, and we're trying to answer the stigma with a new form of media - non-judgmental, not clichéd - and I hope the audience comes into this movie without preconceptions about the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people with Aids are living like second-class citizens today."

In Asma'a, the title character keeps her condition secret from friends and neighbours because she is afraid of the stigma attached to HIV/Aids. El Kedwani plays a TV host who encourages her to fight back against her condition and the prejudice that surrounds her.

Asma'a is Salama's second feature film. His first, On a Day Like Today, had its premiere at the Abu Dhabi festival in 2008.

The Egyptian actress Bushra Rozza is one of the film's producers. Asked why she had become involved in the project, she said: "I'm a woman, and anything that has to do with women's rights and human rights always attracts me. I'm always encouraged to work on new topics that haven't been exposed before, especially in the Arabic cinema."

Her fellow producer Mohamed Hefzy said: "lt's not just a film about Aids, it's also about anybody who is part of a minority or facing discrimination."