Cairo's 'Medfest: Under the Skin' probes where film meets medicine

Soha Elsirgany , Sunday 5 Feb 2017

The festival was organised by medical doctors Mina El-Naggar and Khaled Ali, who share a passion for film

Medfest: Under the skin, at Falaki Theatre (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

A two-day forum with short film screenings, Medfest: Under the Skin took place 27 January at the Creativity Centre and on 28 January at Falaki Theatre, centering on the theme of mental health.

The first edition of Medfest describes itself as "a cinematic voyage into mental health."

It unites the art of film and the science of medicine, celebrating the place where they overlap as a fertile ground for intriguing discourse, and shining a spotlight on untapped potential.

“Medicine is a factual science, and films are the world of magic and imagination; they teach us how to feel,” organiser Mina El-Naggar said in opening words at the event.

El-Naggar is a clinical nutritionist, an actor and a filmmaker. His short film The Birthmark Man won the first prize in the 48 Hour Film Festival. 

He added that medical conditions are an integral aspect of the human experience, so it’s inevitable that they find their way into film across different genres.

“Films allow us to know the patient and encourage empathy, something essential in the practice of medicine, which should go beyond diagnosing the patient,” geriatrician Khaled Ali added.

Medfest was born out of a conversation he had during Cairo’s Panorama of the European Film Festival between El-Naggar and Ali, who is a senior lecturer in geriatrics and stroke medicine at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and editor of The Screening Room section of the Medical Humanities British Medical Journal online.

Ali is also a writer of film reviews with a focus on humane and medical aspects, contributing to top international film festivals including Cannes, Edinburgh and the Dubai Film Festival.

Upon discovering their mutual passion for film alongside their careers in medicine, the two men initiated the event in Egypt inspired by a similar one held in the UK, as a platform for professionals and enthusiasts alike across both disciplines.

Medfest also aims to propagate empathy and dissolve stigmas while raising awareness on the social impact of different illnesses, which aren’t always recognisable to the general public.

El-Naggar told Ahram Online that many of the films that came in response to their open call contained stigmas, which they didn’t wish to encourage, leading them to only select a couple of them. The other works were curated from films the organisers have seen before at festivals, and felt were relevant to the theme.

“Medfest is all kinds of medical subjects. We started with mental health, or the psychological aspect, and we will expand it, but there will always be a psychological reference. All health issues and illnesses are real drama from real life, and drama is always linked to the psychological aspect.”

The plan for the coming editions of Medfest is to have an open call for filmmakers in advance, and hopefully to offer grants or funds for production of relevant films.

Between two worlds

On the second day of Medfest at Falaki Theatre, seven Egyptian and international short films were screened throughout the evening, with discussion sessions held in between.

The discussions, moderated by Ali, invited to the stage panelists from different backgrounds – film and medicine – to field questions from the audience and delve into the films from the perspective of two seemingly divergent disciplines.

The many points where film and medicine can meet were also reflected in the diversity of the films.

Two films were screened under the theme of ‘Between two worlds’: the Egyptian film Compos Mentis and the UK film Outside, each tackling psychological questions in different ways.

Video art film Compos Mentis by Mohammad Shawky Hassan offered an artistic interpretation exploring the fine line between sanity and madness, and the social obligations that dictate what being normal is.

The film’s title is the Latin phrase meaning to have full control of one’s mind. The film has no linear narrative, but is suggestive of the themes it tackles. It is the voiceover that plays an important role in making it a psychological exploration.

The film opens with a woman in conversation with a philosopher around what makes a sound man and sound mind. We are presented with various stories during different parts of the film, such as a woman who has a condition of uncontrollable laughter, leading her to limit her social interactions to spare herself from the judgement of others. The auditory material also includes sound clips from the Egyptian film Be’r El-Herman, starring Soad Hosny as a schizophrenic seductress.

“The sound created a tension, and the dialogue from Be’r El-Herman (Well of Deprivation) seems to have been selected very carefully, it gave me a whole new context for the film,” Egyptian film director Amir Ramsis said in the discussion.

Ali pointed out how the film included many scenes from religious spaces, and scenes of holy rituals such as baptism.

“Perhaps this is linked to how some religious practices were often resorted to for curing people from psychological problems, such as El-Zar rituals,” Ali offered, as a means of deciphering the film’s conceptual language.

Dr Hani Shoeb, head of the psychological medicine section at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in England, highlighted the difference between restraint and suppression.

“Restraint is through obligations, which make boundaries for the individual, religion can be one of them, as well as social expectations,” he said.

Group photo of organisers, panelists and audience participants at the Medfest forum (Photo: Soha Elsirgany)

Outside, directed by Dolly Sen took a more direct approach, created with the intention of being informative and educational.

The film offers an example of the real life drama El-Naggar referred to. Evoking a thriller fiction, Outside centres on a woman suffering from psychosis, a condition that makes a simple shopping trip a challenging ordeal in every step as she battles with hallucinations.

The director herself has lived through psychosis, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. It is one of a group of films she made to raise awareness on what psychological conditions feel like to those experiencing them, and to better help other people understand them.

It’s directness makes it easily relatable to a wide range of audience, as opposed to the conceptual play and artistic ambiguity that Compos Mentis portrayed.

During the open discussion, an audience member raised the question of to what extent has Egyptian cinema effectively presented psychological health issues?

Ramsis’s response was that the potential was largely unexploited, noting that many Egyptian films tend to use the psychological condition non-seriously, or as a plot twist, instead of placing it at the centre of the story.

Some examples of the latter include Mariam Naoum’s television series Taht El-Saytara,

“It must be taken into consideration though, that filmmakers need to make the story attractive. Just portraying a psychological condition isn’t attractive enough to the audience,” Shoeb said.

When an audience suggestion emerged to create a series, similar to Sen’s films, that would be accurate enough for medical students to learn from, Ramsis also pointed to the issue of production.

“This is not a genre that Egyptian production companies will care to invest in, so the project will be up against that establishment. Many of the films and series that tackled such issues were co-produced by the institutions that cared for the cause,” he said.

A look from the inside

The second round of screenings grouped five films under the theme of ‘A look from the inside.’ All the films in this group touched upon the situation of children, who are often tangled in the traumas of the adults around them.

A Game by Egyptian director Marwa Zein offered an excellent drama, featuring a young girl who turns the tables on her mother through a game of role play, surprising her with how much she knows.

“We often underestimate how aware children are of the troubles around them. They can feel any shifts in the energy around them in the household,” Dr Tarig Diab, consultant in child psychiatry at Dubai’s El-Galeila Hospital, said.

A different type of film was To This Day by Shayne Koyczan, a slam poetry with animation video on the subject of child bullying and its effects that can last into adulthood.

It is the most direct of the five films in terms of sending a message, as the poem is spoken in the first person as well as third person. The emotional charge in the poetry is a poignant and powerful reminder of how this is not an issue to be taken lightly.

Mavie Maher’s film Bayeha, from Egypt, touched on the effect of trauma on children, though this wasn’t originally meant to be at the centre of its story.

The degree of relevance was similar in the British film Dr Easy, where a man who is about to commit suicide, and we learn that he will be leaving a child behind, leaving us to imagine the consequences.

The British short documentary Notes from Inside showed music’s therapeutic effect, as a successful pianist, James Rhodes, revisits the psychiatric hospital in which he stayed.

After sharing how he was saved by music, the film documents an experiment where he brings live classical music —and installs a piano — in the hospital, in hopes that he can use music to help patients there work through their struggles.

Rhodes particularly bonds with a patient who like him has a young boy, and shares with her his emotions of guilt toward his son, and how seeing him was the main reason he backed out of suicide.

On the subject of children, the audience brought up the subject of onscreen violence and age limits, questioning how responsible directors are when it comes to children watching scenes of violence.

“This responsibility can’t be placed on the director or the artist, who should be able to do his work the way he wishes. I believe there should be more effort from entities to enforce age group censorship,” Ramsis said.

As the discussion came to a close, a medicine student asked how he could move forward with a project and create more works that bridge medicine and film.

“We often think of change as something that comes from an organisation. Maybe in the Arab world this is not even practical anymore. I’m all for individual efforts. Perhaps this discussion will lead someone into taking an initiative to start something like that, and the effect will ripple,” Ramsis said.

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