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Zelal traverses the inner sanctums of Egypt's mental institutions

Zelal, the documentary to be screened on 19 April at the French Cultural Centre, walks into the world of the forsaken lives of patients in psychiatric hospitals in Cairo

Wael Eskandar, Monday 18 Apr 2011
Screenshot from the movie Zelal.

If ever there was a purpose for a camera to document the realities of our world, Zelal (Shadows) is it.

The documentary opens with a policeman and his father being interviewed by a psychiatrist as the policeman is being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The doctor asks the father, “Is he a policeman?” The father responds, “He used to be,” and breaks down completely in tears of sadness and regret over what his son once was and what he has now become.

Set in the inner sanctums of Abbaseya hospital and El Khanka, the camera shadows the lives of patients within the institution. The scenes are unassuming and natural. Patiently shot, they reflect a marriage between fantasy and reality that is both transformative and surreal. The effect is a reality more authentic than that of everyday life.

The patients are uninhibited in their actions, emotions and words, delivering a smooth and natural feel to the audience behind the camera, exceeding many professional actors and actresses. Their words are moving, exceeding well-drafted lines by experienced screenwriters.

In watching the documentary we become engaged in a reality in a different world that few can experience. Zelal truly expounds on this world, placing us in it and in what the characters experience as they tell their stories.

The true power of Zelal is storytelling, where each character tells their story with no added narration. No judgment is passed on the protagonists of this documentary. In fact, owing to the sincerity of the storytelling, we’re left wondering whether the patients have any mental illness at all. Many seem to be admitted because they were an inconvenience to their families, or because they got in the way or because of some emotional trauma they experienced.

The documentary ventures into reasons as to why patients are locked away. As we watch this alternate world running parallel to ours, we’re exposed to a wide range of emotions that co-exist simultaneously.

Zelal is a Misr International Film production, directed by Marianne Khoury and Tunisian director Mustapha Hasnaoui who died earlier this year on 15 January. The film was shot in three, one-month intervals over a total period of eight months. The shooting provided 120 hours of raw footage that was then edited in a year to produce the 90-minute documentary.

The idea was conceived by Marianne Khoury and aimed to shed light on the isolated lives within the mental institutions. Many of the film’s scenes reflect a thorough observation of the social world within the walls of the mental institution. Particularly subtle, yet extremely moving were the scenes where one patient waits for another to pass down a cigarette. The patient smoking the cigarette waits till just before the cigarette is done and passes it on. The scenes reflect self-interest that does not quite venture into selfishness.

The film’s explorative nature of the wide spectrum of human emotions makes it a movie well worth watching. It is telling of a society that is unable to be at peace with itself and produces a group isolated almost entirely.

In the end, one cannot but help wonder if the illness was within the confines of the mental hospitals or outside it.

Zelal will be screened as part of the Recontres de L'image Film Festival on 19 April at the French Cultural Centre.

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