With Zelal screening in Cairo, mental patients unveil social issues

Rowan El Shimi, Thursday 20 Feb 2014

Issues of mental and social illness in Egypt are uncovered in director's talk with audience after Marianne Khoury and Mostapha Hasnaoui's 2010 award-winning documentary Zelal screened 17 Feb in Cairo's Vent

Zelal Marianne Khoury
Still from Zelal

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 it from family, neighbours and friends. Those who are committed to insane asylums are alienated and, until Zelal was created, no audio-visual representation of what happens behind these hospitals walls was available to the public.

Zelal -- a 2010 award-winning documentary film directed by Marianne Khoury and Mostapha Hasnaoui which screened on 17 February in downtown Cairo's Vent -- takes viewers into the world of Cairo's Abbasia Hospital for Mental Health. The film offers a glimpse of the lives of several nameless characters within the hospital, and their families, while revealing the suffering they endure there due to overmedication and maltreatment.

In spite of the harsh subject, Zelal manages to be heart-warming, at specific moments even providing the film with amusing material. The hospital characters, representing a successfully compiled diversity of genders, religions and cultures, narrate what brought them to the hospital, their lives there, and their attempts to leave their new home.

The film is characterised by a quasi-absent soundtrack, as the only music to be heard emanates from the patients themselves, singing individually or in groups. Keen on portraying an honest account 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 rendered relating to the characters easy and heart-felt, is made evident to the viewer.

According to Khoury, the film necessitated over three years to make, with a total eight months of shooting during which the directors visited the hospital for days at a time. However, in spite of the hard work invested in the film's pre-production and production phases, 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 the screening in Vent.

The trust between the filmmakers and characters was evident. The stories told were 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 explains to the directors in detail her sexual frustrations with her husband, her onanism habit, 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 fit into her life "outside" when she tried to return to it, her family's lack of support eventually driving her right back in.

The film reveals how, abandoned by their families, many 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 its walls. Through their stories, Zelal reveals problems and realities afflicting society at large -- from sectarianism, to domestic violence and sexual repression. Viewers are given a chance to reflect on the society they live in through the mirror held up by those fellow citizens 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 -- and thanks to the support of Dr Nasser Loza who, at the time, had just become the Abbasia 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 has enjoyed many private and limited public screenings since its release. Khoury hopes the film will be screened on a wider public scale through Misr International Films' new project Zawya -- starting April at cinema Odeon -- which will provide alternative films alongside mainstream productions available in Egypt.

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