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The country's most famous HIV/AIDS crusader stars as a victim of the disease in a new local film


"˜Asian heroin' Pham Thi Hue in Sieu thoat (Salvation)

Pham Thi Hue's life could have been just one more sad statistic: another woman from the northern port town of Hai Phong infected with HIV by her drug-addict husband.

Most of these women have chosen lives of silence and shame in a society that still largely shuns victims of HIV/AIDS.

But Hue spoke up.

In 2002, the 22-year-old tailor and mother of a baby son told her story to the public at a seminar on HIV/AIDS discrimination in Hanoi. She told the event about how she had been shunned, her tailor shop abandoned by customers. "HIV victims are killed by discrimination before they die of the disease," she said, in what has become her most requently quote line.

She said the appearance gave her the courage to start helping other victims. She then began championing the plight of the victims at conferences and on television news as a way to create awareness. She wanted to both raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS problem and take on the widespread discrimination against those infected.

Now, the 31-year-old has just wrapped up the shooting of a new film in which she stars as a prostitute who dies of AIDS. Hue hopes the film will take her message even further, but both her and the film's director Vinh Khuong say the project, Sieu thoat (Salvation), was no walk in the park.

They had to overcome several major obstacles, including Hue's own reluctance to join the project and a cast and crew that shied away from working with and opening up to an AIDS victim on the set.

Heroes

Years before Khuong had even approached Hue with the idea of making a film, Hue found out she had contracted the fatal disease just after giving birth to her son in 2001. She and her husband, Pham Minh Thao, twice planned to commit joint-suicide, but their son's cries prevented them from drinking the poison they had prepared.

Hue said the happiest moment in her life was when she found out her son was not infected with HIV when he was three years old. Hue said her and husband were too afraid to test the boy before then.

In 2003, she founded Hoa phuong do (Red Flamboyant), a woman's group that helps those who share Hue's story. She also became the face of Me va vo (Mothers and Wives), a group established by Norwegian NGO Nordic Assistance to Vietnam (NAV) and the Hai Phong People's Committee.

"I think the happiness comes from helping as many people as possible. Each of us becomes a hero when giving our hands to others," Hue told Cong An Nhan Dan (People's Police) in March this year.

Hoa phuong do's 130 members and hundreds of other partners, including Me va vo, work to provide medicine and healthcare to the hundreds of thousands living with HIV/AIDS in the country. They also hold funeral services for those who succumb to the disease.

Hue and her partners also help HIV-affected families buy food, pay tuition and build houses.

Hoa phuong do is particularly well-known for its women's group sessions where wives, mothers and daughters gather for therapy, counseling and support.

Awkward but rewarding

Hue said it took her 2 years of deep contemplation before she accepted Sieu thoat's leading role as Thu, a prostitute who dies of HIV/AIDS.

"When Khuong invited me to take part in the film, I was doing much soul-searching. My real life had become material for many documentaries and social programs but it was the first time a director wanted me to appear in a film."

Hue said that many of her friends thought the film might just exploit her, but her husband encouraged her to give it a shot.

In the end it was Khuong's persuasiveness and the significance of the film (the benefits of which will be devoted to raise funds for HIV-infected children) that convinced her to join the project.

But Khuong said some of the actors and actresses were afraid of being infected with HIV or AIDS while shooting the film. He said several young stars declined to take part in the film, though he wouldn't name names. He said some wanted to join the production, but their families wouldn't allow it.

He had to do a lot of explaining: that the film was for a good cause and everything would be safe. But he noticed that in general, people on set worked with Hue in a "reserved manner."

Khuong said it was extremely difficult to find actors to work in lead roles alongside Hue as many characters had love-making and violent physical fight scenes with her in the film.

Finding a young girl to play Thu's sister was particularly tough.

"Nearly ten girls chosen for the role quit during the filming. Luckily at last, I found Truc Linh, an actress who has experience and a family that backed her decision to be in the film."

Hue said many members of the cast and crew simply didn't know how HIV/AIDS was transmitted.

"After working with everyone for a while, I set their minds at rest with ways to stay safe and prevent transmission. Everything is okay."

Some of the film crew treated Hue in a cold and distant manner, according to both the leading lady and Khuong. But she said it never bothered her.

The leading lady recalls the film's make-up artist keeping her distance. She used new products each time Hue had to be done up, and threw everything away after each session.

"That's just people's normal behavior and I thoroughly understand them," said Hue.

But things were still unpredictable.

"In the scene in which Thu [the protagonist] is raped, it was easy to get scratched," Hue said.

"After finishing the scene, an actor was panic-stricken when he had a scrape on his arm. It took me a long time to calm him down by explaining that I had no wound and that he did not touch me, and that it was safe."

Where reality and cinema converge

Sieu thoat, which Khuong hopes to release at the end of the year, features three characters: a deaf-and-dumb old man, a prostitute and an orphan street boy. By interweaving the lives of the three characters, the film seeks to highlight the endurance of human dignity amid the confines of a cold and rigid society.

Khuong said Hue's true-life story had partially inspired the film and that her real life tragedies had "harmonized with the protagonist's."

He now plans to make a documentary about Hue's devotion to the local HIV/AIDS community.

"No one knows that she has collected the corpses of dead AIDS victims, cleaned and buried them herself," said Khuong. "She also does not talk about how much time she has spent finding HIV-infected children in remote areas in order to get them into school. I really admire her great courage."

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