For as long as this generation can remember, mental illness has always borne a stigma. Since its sufferers are seen as "crazy", "insane" or at least "abnormal" when seeking professional mental help, they hide their illness from family, neighbours and friends. Those who are committed to insane asylums are alienated and, until the documentary Zelal was created, no audio-visual representation of what happens behind these hospital walls was available to the public.
Zelal – a 2010 award-winning documentary film directed by Marianne Khoury and Mostapha Hasnaoui and set to screen on Tuesday 30 September at Cairo's art house cinema Zawya – takes viewers into the world of Cairo's Abbasiya Hospital for Mental Health. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of several nameless characters in the hospital, as well as their families, while revealing the suffering they endure due to overmedication and maltreatment.
In spite of the harsh subject, Zelal still manages to be heart-warming, at times even amusing. The hospital characters – successfully diverse in gender, religion and culture – narrate what brought them there, what their lives are like and how they've tried to leave.
The film is characterised with a quasi-absent soundtrack, as the only music comes from the patients themselves, singing individually or in groups. Keen on an honest portrayal of their experience at the hospital, the directors chose to limit interventions in filming and editing. The final product is a collection of stories and footage from the hospital, with nothing staged or stolen. The observational approach in filming, which made relating to the characters easy and heart-felt, is evident.
According to Khoury, the film took over three years to make, with a total of eight months of shooting, during which the directors visited the hospital for days at a time. However, post-production remained the most difficult: 100 hours of footage requiring editing.
"There was a choice to be made – what story do you want to tell? The preference was made during the editing. Editor Doaa Fadel did a wonderful job in bringing the two directors' perspectives into the film. There are many, many ways of telling these stories and each was saying something completely different. We wanted to show how diverse this world was," Khoury told the audience after a screening at Vent in February.
The trust between the filmmakers and the characters is evident. The stories are personal and raw. According to Khoury, people were keen on sharing their stories with them, and left no details out.
In one account, a young veiled woman details her sexual frustrations with her husband, her masturbation habits and his mistreatment of her – which she thinks is what drove her to the institute in the first place. The film's other narratives touch upon religion on more than one occasion.
An older woman recounts how, having spent almost her entire life in the hospital – which she calls "home" – she could no longer adjust to life "outside" when she left and was eventually driven back by her family's lack of support.
The film reveals how, abandoned by their families, many patients remain stuck inside for years, mistreated by doctors and nurses, spending their days lost in the hospital corridors, overmedicated and suffering outdated treatments such as electric shocks – a very disturbing scene in the film.
However, the film also offers a sub-layer to the harrowing accounts told by those trapped behind the hospital's walls. Through their stories, Zelal reveals problems and realities afflicting society at large – from sectarianism to domestic violence and sexual repression. We're given a chance to reflect on society through a mirror held up by these fellow citizens who are labelled mentally ill.
The directors managed to obtain approval from the patients, their families and the hospital administration thanks to the support of the World Health Organisation – which at the time was invested in a campaign to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness – as well as the support of Dr. Nasser Loza, who had just become the Abbasiya Hospital's secretary-general of mental health.
"I felt very close to these people. I wanted to get into this world. I am very interested in this borderline between normalcy and insanity," Khoury said. "I wanted to show everyone that you don't have to do very funny things if you are (mentally) not well. It's a sickness, dormant inside every one of us."
Zelal will screen at Zawya on Tuesday 30 September at 6:30pm
A discussion with Marianne Khoury will take place after the film
Odeon Cinema, 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, downtown, Cairo
This review was previously published during Zelal's screening at Vent.