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Arab Cinema

Auditory Hallucinations, Agoraphobia and Extremism as Portrayed by Actor Ahmed Magdy

3 May, 17 | by amcfarlane

In this podcast, our Screening Room editor, Khalid Ali, explores the role of film in shining a light on mental illlness, dysfunctional families, and the rise of religious fanaticism with Egyptian director Ahmed Magdy.

Recently introduced to acting, Ahmed talks about his portrayal of three challenging characters: a young man imprisoned in his mother’s house in Gate of Departure (Karim Hanafy, 2014), an extremist who converts from Islam to Christianity in The Preacher (Mawlana) (Magdi Ahmed Ali, 2016), and a man troubled with persistent auditory hallucinations and a legacy of inherited mental illness in Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim (Sherif El Bendary, 2016).
Ahmed Magdy studied Law in Ain Shams University, but pursued his passion for film by taking part in Egypt’s independent cinema scene since 2008. He produced and directed a couple of independent films, and directed his own short, Caika Bel Crema (A Cream Cake, 2008).

Film Review: Arab Film Festival

5 Sep, 16 | by cquigley


Both films reviewed below will be screened at the upcoming Safar Arab Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts London, September 14-18



Before the Summer Crowds, Egypt, 2015, directed by Mohamed Khan

Opening night film for Safar, Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 14th September 2016,

In Arabic with English subtitles.

Reviewed by Professor Robert Abrams, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York.


The first thing one can say about Mohamed Khan’s acidly satiric film Before the Summer Crowds is that, notwithstanding its title, it is uncommon summer fare. It is neither light nor breezy, and there’s not much of a plot. The principal characters comprise a trio of clueless, seemingly harmless upper-class individuals who have moved into their “chateaux” in the Egyptian beach vacation community of ‘Blue Beach’ before the regular season has begun. But the viewer is not allowed to retain this initial impression of their harmless existence for long; we are soon let in on the shockingly extensive roster of evils that lies beneath their casual banality: Infidelity, gluttony, corruption, spiritual emptiness, indifference to life, and even a taste for carnage.

First, there’s the pudgy Dr. Yehia (Maged El Kedwany), a man preoccupied with food and sex, whose private hospital scandalously reaps profits by understaffing its medical ranks and hiring inexperienced physicians. Even when he performs a supposedly life-saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a beautiful young woman, it is clear that his own sexual gratification is being addressed simultaneously. Yehia’s wife Magda (Lana Mushtaq) is the very personification of emptiness, attempting to sate that void by gorging herself on peanut butter. Magda owns an inherited chateau—a facetiously pretentious name for a beach cottage–in the ‘first row’ of the seaside community, a distinction of which she is inordinately proud and one that she believes places her apart from the ordinary parvenus who arrived at ‘Blue Beach’ more recently. Magda tolerates Yehia, but there is no sense of love between them, not even lust. We see Magda meditating, but there’s nothing spiritually meaningful about what she does—her mind is already empty.

In the course of the film, Yehia becomes involved in a mutual attraction with Hala (Hana Shiha), a young mother who is uninterested in her children and uses her chateau as a trysting place for a rendezvous with Hesham (Hani El Metennawy), her narcissistic B-movie actor-lover. (This fact gives a rather smarmy double meaning to the name ‘Blue Beach’). When Hala learns that Hesham has been unfaithful—no great surprise—she finds common ground, albeit on very shallow soil, with Yehia. They flirt with the idea of having an affair unbound by any conscience or moral codes.

Yehia is at once grotesque and immature, but one is gradually made to understand that his immaturity is far from victimless. His patients are cheated, a court case of medical negligence case is underway; his wife is cheated on; and he sleeps drunkenly as Magda’s pet parrot—the only creature she seems to love—is set upon by cats. It is not the feline hunting instinct that is highlighted in that scene of carnage but Yehia’s indifference. Even Yehia’s preparations for a festive dinner with freshly caught fish seem more like a bloody massacre and an extravagant waste of marine life than a demonstration of his culinary skills.

The working-class young man, Gom’aa (Ahmed Dawood), the resort bell-boy, is seen by Yehia, Magda and Hala as a dispensable entity to be treated with barely hidden condescension. Gom’aa is mainly useful for errands, watering the garden when Yehia doesn’t feel like doing it himself, and fetching things for Hala.

Not a great deal happens in Before the Summer Crowds; but it somehow leaves the viewer with a surprisingly strong impression of sadness and regret. All of the characters are presented as prisoners in different ways of this gated community, unable to move beyond its strictures. The only exception is Gom’aa, a young man who comes from another world looking for his ‘Shangri-La’ in ‘Blue Beach’. Yehia, Magda and Hala have material abundance, sex and food, but are utterly bereft of passion or purpose. The lives of these principals—again save for Gom’aa—are so pathetically empty and loveless that the compassion of the viewer for these otherwise contemptible individuals is paradoxically elicited. How? The key is in the extraordinary acting, where we are unwittingly induced to experience emotions that should belong to the characters but do not; in a way, it might be said that this is the hallmark of all excellent acting.  Here, in the subtly played role of Dr. Yehia, Maged El Kedwany ( demonstrates why he is considered one of the finest contemporary character actors in the Arab world. Although I have been told that Before the Summer Crowds is not typical of the films of the late Mohamed Khan (, this deceptively non-action film skillfully not only skewers the bourgeois vacationers of Blue Beach for their corruption and emptiness, but it also lets us feel the sadness of their lives.

Address for correspondence:


Borders of Heaven, Tunisia, France, United Arab Emirates, 2015, directed by Fares Naanaa

ICA, London, Saturday 17th September 2016

In Arabic with English subtitles

Reviewed by Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room editor, Medical Humanities


Recently, Tunisian cinema has become an artistic force to be reckoned with, As I open my eyes winning best director for Leyla Bouzid in Dubai International Film Festival 2015 (, and Hedi opening Berlin Film Festival in 2016 ( Borders of Heaven is another compelling story from Tunisia written and directed by Fares Naanaa.

Samy (Lotfi Abdelli) and Sara (Anisaa Daoud) are a happily married couple with their little daughter Yasmine (Sophie Ghodhbane). Their blissful existence is shattered when Yasmine dies in a drowning accident. Samy is consumed with guilt as he blames himself for Yasmine’s death. Losing the will to live, he wanders aimlessly seeking solace in illicit affairs with random women he meets in the streets.

On the other hand, Sara is determined to fight for survival and a meaningful life in spite of her inconsolable grief. She continues to work daytime and rehearses singing every night with a music group. Sadly, Samy and Sara have become strangers in their household; she wants to re-build their married life, while he is entrapped in his world of anger and hopelessness.

Josephine Jacobsen ( described the devastating effect of a child’s death in one of her poems: ‘’It is a fearful thing to love, what death can touch’’. Borders of Heaven revisits the universal themes of isolation, grief and bereavement after losing a child; themes that were explored in Don’t Look Now, UK, Italy, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, (, and Rabbit Hole, USA, 2010, directed by John Cameron Mitchell ( In Don’t Look Now the bereaved couple indulge in an intense sexual relationship to distract their minds from grief, while Samy indulges in alcohol and one-night stands. The estrangement and bitterness that Samy and Sara experience are reminiscent of another bereaved couple’s ordeal (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole).

Fares Naanaa reminds us of the Kübler-Ross model of the ‘Five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance’ (1, 2). While Samy is stuck in depression, Sara has accepted the reality of losing her daughter using music and singing as a means to restore her well-being; a form of ‘personalized music therapy’. Echoing themes of Song for Marion, (UK, Germany, 2012, directed by Paul Andrew Williams,, where salvation for a widowed husband came from his engagement in a community music group, Borders of Heaven emphasises the role of music in healing after loss (3, 4).  Sara demonstrates what mental health professionals call ‘psychological resilience’ (5, 6); she channels emotions and words into a creative outlet. Her identity is one of ‘normalizers’; individuals who focus on connecting with friends and community to re-create meaning in their lives after bereavement, while Samy belongs to the ‘nomads; people who are stuck in anger, depression, and loneliness’ (7). Coping with grief after losing a child calls for desperate measures, which can take the form of ‘disinvestment’ in traumatic memories, and moving on with life, which Samy cannot muster.

Both lead actors, Lotfi Abdelli and Anisaa Daoud, give heartfelt performances displaying raw intense emotions that are rewarded by the viewers fully empathising with their tragedy. It is no wonder that Lotfi Abdelli won best actor award in Dubai International Film Festival, 2015, Borders of Heaven is a universal story of loss, hope and survival.


  1. Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge
  2. Kübler-Ross, E. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd
  1. Khan W U, et al 2016. Perceptions of music therapy among healthcare professionals. Med Humanit 42: 52-6.
  2. Moss H, Donnellan C, O’Neill D, 2012. A review of qualitative methodologies used to explore patient perceptions of arts and healthcare. Med Humanit 38: 106-9.
  4. Bonanno, George A. Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after externally aversive events? American Psychologist 2004; 59 (1): 20-8.

Address for correspondence:

Mohamed Khan – a tribute

1 Aug, 16 | by cquigley


Mohamed Khan – A visionary Egyptian film maker


Mohamed Khan, (born on 26-10-1942), an Egyptian film director, script writer, and actor died on 26-7-2016 in Cairo following a short illness. He was one of the eminent film makers who led the 80’s wave of social realism in Arab cinema. Born to a Pakistani father, and a British/Egyptian mother, he left Cairo in 1956 to study architectural design in London. Years of fascination with the world of cinema, living in London in the swinging 60’s and a friendship with a neighbour, a film student, made him abandon architecture, and switch to studying film at the London School of Film Technique in 1962.
After a few years of working as an assistant director in Lebanon, and a script consultant in the General Egyptian Film Organization, he made his first film ‘Heat stroke, 1978’ which premiered at the Montreal Film Festival.

His films portrayed the lives of recognizable characters from Egyptian society, with an emphasis on marginalized people. His fresh cinematic style of telling stories, outside the confines of film studios, with a richly-detailed social and political background- endeared him to the public and critics alike. A succession of influential films crossed over to international audience and festivals earning prestigious awards. ‘Dreams of Hind and Kamilia, 1988’- is quoted in the list of the 100 landmark films in Egyptian cinema.

Khan refused to be described as a social reformer, he preferred to ‘underline the social ills, rather than offer answers or cure’,

He adapted literary classics such as F. Scott Fitzgerald ‘The great Gatsby’ in ‘Desire, 1980’, and H. E. Bates ‘The darling buds of May’ in ‘Gone and never come back, 1984’.
Fascinated by women stories; ‘A dinner date, 1982’, ‘Downtown girls, 2005’, ‘In the Heliopolis flat, 2007’, and ‘Factory girl, 2014’ his films appealed to several generations.

As a tribute, the Arab British Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London will screen his last film ‘Before the summer crowds’ on 14th September 2016,

Khalid Ali, Screening room editor

The Screening Room: old age, loneliness and cinema

31 May, 16 | by cquigley


Loneliness, and Belonging in the Age of Photoshop

Short film, directed by Amjad Abu Ala


Review by Professor Robert C Abrams, Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York

There is a world of life portrayed in the few brief minutes of the poignant but joyous short film, ‘Studio’, by Amjad Abu Ala (in Arabic with English subtitles).  The film is an affecting portrayal of loneliness in old age and the restorative grace of fantasy.  Through its brevity and intensity it delivers the kind of impact one feels from a tightly crafted short story, where there are no extraneous words or gestures and everything tells.

‘Studio’ opens as a man in late middle age stares intently ahead:  More on him is to follow later.  The scene shifts quickly—as it must, since this film runs for barely 8 minutes–to a view of a photographer’s portrait studio, followed in rapid succession by several of the photographer’s clients posing against a neutral background. They comprise a random but somehow representative sample of humanity. The photographer himself is introduced as a kind of hipster-businessman, a young man immersed in the photo-technology in which reality can be wondrously manipulated.

First on deck is a young woman anxiously fretting over her appearance, followed by a shy little boy, with abundant budding confidence, who seems destined for a happy life surrounded by a loving family.  The subsequent characters are mostly young people.

Eventually the older man returns, this time with a peculiar request.  He asks the photographer to replace the patriarchal figure in a family group portrait with an image of himself.  The wife, son, daughter, and grandson in the original portrait are now to become, with a couple of clicks on a mouse, his new “family.” But the old man encounters a technical problem: for such a momentous transformation, the background of his own ‘family photo’ must have exactly the right color and texture before it is ‘photo-shopped’ into the collage. Like everyone else, however, he must settle for what is available.

That the loneliness of old age is the principal theme here is readily apparent, and one appreciates how it can surpass in its depth of suffering the anxiety of younger adulthood, exemplified by the self-preoccupied young woman. In his innocent appeal, the old man manages to persuade the skeptical young photographer to go along in altering reality.

The older man’s stance evokes a particular passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel, Never Let Me Go, where the protagonist asserts that if, nearing death, you have no happy memories upon which to reflect, it is justifiable to “borrow” them from someone else and regard them as your own.

‘Studio’ is also a story of the photographer—revealing as much about the observer as the observed.  The photographer does not seem to think of himself as an artist, and that he is primarily in business is emphasized by shots of the window of his studio featuring advertisements for his services.  The photographer, who starts out with a brisk “time is money” stance, evolves over the few minutes of the film, moved by the pathos and urgency of his client’s request.  When the photographer is able to identify with the older man on a human level, the request to construct an imagined family no longer strikes him, nor ourselves the viewers, as outlandish.  Perhaps the photographer considers whether the older man could be widowed, grieving, estranged from or abandoned by his “real” family, and there is nothing laughable or ironic about created families.

The young photographer also appears to have realized that his work, whether intended as art or as commerce, has the potential to console. The healing effects of art are thus implied, as is the possibility that the old man can be immortalized in the finished photo: that product now exists, it is real, and it will stand forever as proof that he was once the progenitor of a loving family.

By end of the film the photographer’s smile (now he’s part of the portrait too) reveals his feeling of kinship with the older man. They are both in the business of life, though at different phases. Two lives have now been altered by the clicks of that mouse.

After the old man carries his treasure, the portrait of his “family,” through deserted streets with high, whitewashed walls that further speak to loneliness, the film closes with a few unforgettable lines about the principal dread of old age, loneliness. In common with physical pain, it is felt most keenly at night when there are no moderating distractions.  “When sleep refuse…/my eyes stay awake. /even that shadow. Left me alone, /Please shadow. don’t leave me alone.”

To view the film, please access

Address for correspondence:

The Screening Room: a review of the Lebanese film Ghadi

18 May, 16 | by cquigley

Ghadi New Poster

Music overcoming disability –  Ghadi, Lebanon, 2013, directed by Amin Dora

Reviewed by Dr Reem Gaafar, a Sudanese doctor, writer, filmmaker and graphic designer


A special screening will take place at the Polish Cultural Centre, 238 King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 0RF, Sapphire Room, 2nd Floor, at 8pm Friday 3rd June 2016. To book tickets

To buy copies of the film, please email


Ghadi, a 2013 film from Lebanon tells a poignant story: In a small town called Al Mshakal, there lived a young boy named Leba. Leba had a stutter, and was subjected to bullying and humiliation from his schoolmates, until a mysterious music teacher, Mr. Fawzi moved into town with his piano as well as nightly Mozart recitals. Using music lessons and improvised speech therapy, Mr. Fawzi helped Leba grow out of his stutter. Years later, Leba becomes a music teacher himself. His music attracts his childhood crush Lara into his classroom, and one Sunday afternoon, into his life. Their happy marriage is crowned with two beautiful daughters, but the family’s blissful life is disturbed by the obtrusive local community urging Leba and Lara to try for a baby son. The so-called caring community lived on gossip and backbiting with dishonesty flowing through the cobbled streets like a dark, murky river.

Eventually, a baby boy is conceived, but to the couple’s distress he is expected to be born with special needs. Leba has serious concerns: should the child be born or not? Is it fair to bring such a child into the world? He seeks advice from Mr. Fawzi, his childhood teacher and friend. Mortified by Leba’s doubts, Mr. Fawzi advises him to name the child immediately, to give him a presence, an existence, and the right to live. A few months later, Ghadi is born with Trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome) becoming the most handsome boy in the neighborhood.

In today’s world of modern technology and advanced medicine, it has become relatively common for a couple to face the impending reality of bringing a ‘different’ child into the world. Basic ultrasound, amniocentesis and chorionic villous sampling can detect as early as 10 weeks a child with congenital and chromosomal anomalies, genetic disorders of metabolism, and various growth abnormalities. First trimester screening for Down’s syndrome has become routine in the developed world (Huang et al, 2015), and screening for anomalies at 18-20 weeks is becoming regular practice in the developing world. The course of action that follows the discovery of an aberration, however, is not at all globally agreed upon.

Many factors – religious, legal, educational, social and others influence the expecting couples’ decision to undertake the screening procedures in the first place, and to continue or terminate the pregnancy. Studies suggest that health professionals are more likely to lean towards termination of abnormal pregnancies than the general lay person (Drake, Reid and Marteau, 1996, Norup, M, 1998), and that a third of women who have a sibling with Down’s syndrome would consider termination if their prenatal screening proved they were carrying a child with chromosomal aneuploidy (Bryant, Hewison and Green, 2004). However, some individuals remain uncertain about terminating a fetus with Down’s syndrome compared to other conditions such as spina bifida and hemophilia (Bell and Stoneman, 2000). Some parents and/or health professionals think it is justified to not provide children with Downs’ syndrome the necessary medical and social care they need. Some families hand over the responsibility of these children’s care to public health systems through adoption (Julian-Reyniar et al, 1995).

On the other hand, advances in medicine and technology are allowing everyone, including the disabled, to live longer and healthier lives. Disability activists are now calling for women to resist the pressure to abort a disabled fetus, believing that such acts oppress the rights of the disabled, as well as adversely affecting all women (Saxton, M. and Davis, L., 2013).

While prenatal screening is being increasingly offered in the Middle East, the attitudes of both lay people and doctors are still unknown concerning abortion in general, and aborting a potentially-disabled fetus in particular. It is to be expected that these attitudes are based on cultural and religious beliefs and the laws that govern them. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is predominantly Muslim, and the local laws rely heavily on the different interpretations of Islamic ruling in this matter, as well as on those laws inherited from colonial times. Abortion laws range from liberal to very restrictive, but the position of selective abortion relating to Down’s syndrome is not at all clear. Only Tunisia and Turkey have laws that allow abortion without restriction based on underlying reason (Dabash, R and Roudi-Fahmi, F, 2008, Hessini, L, 2007).

Ghadi spends his days and nights at the family’s home singing his peculiar songs, irritating the neighbourhood even more than Mr. Fawzi’s Mozart recitals used to. Eventually, Leba is faced with an ultimatum: either to send Ghadi to a specialist institution, or face the prospect of eviction with his family from their hometown. Desperate for a way out, Leba, helped by the village outcasts, succeeds in conjuring an elaborate plan to convince everyone that Ghadi is an ‘angel’ who can grant local people their wishes and punish them for their sins. In an unexpected twist of events, the townsfolk transform into honest, law-abiding citizens in fear of the wrath of ‘Ghadi, the angel’.

The film suggests that in spite of Leba’s initial apprehension and the community’s rejection of Ghadi, the pro-life decision for children with special needs ultimately turns out to be the correct and rewarding decision for all. Down’s syndrome is now officially recognized globally with a whole week dedicated annually to increasing awareness.

Special thanks to Amin Dora and Elyssa Skaff for kindly facilitating this review.

Address for correspondence:


Bell, M. and Stoneman, Z.  (2000). Reactions to Prenatal Testing: Reflection of Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Abortion and People With Disabilities. American Journal on Mental Retardation: January 2000, Vol. 105, No. 1, pp. 1-13.

Bryant, L., Hewison, JD and Green, M., (2005). Attitudes towards prenatal diagnosis and termination in women who have a sibling with Down’s syndrome. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, Volume 23Issue 2, 2005, pg. 181 – 198, DOI: 10.1080/02646830500129214

Dabash, R and Roudi-Fahmi, F., (2008). Abortion in the Middle East and North Africa. Population Reference Bureau, USA. Online, available at

Drake, H., Reid, M. and Marteau, T. (1996). Attitudes towards termination for fetal abnormality: comparisons in three European countries. Clinical Genetics, 49: 134–140. doi: 10.1111/j.1399-0004.1996.tb03272.x

Hessini, L., 2007. Abortion and Islam: policies and practice in the Middle-East and North Africa. Reproductive Health Matters, vol. 15, no. 29, pg. 74-84

Huang, T., Dennis, A., Meschino, W., Rashid, S., Mak-Tam, E. and Cuckle, H., (2015). First trimester screening for Down syndrome using nuchal translucency, maternal serum pregnancy-associated plasma protein A, free-β human chorionic gonadotrophin, placental growth factor, and α-fetoprotein. Prenatal Diagnosis, Vol 35, pg. 709 – 716, DOI: 10.1002/pd.4597

Julian-Reynier, C., Aurran, Y., Dumaret, A., Maron, A., Chabal, F. Giraud, F. and Aymé S, 1995. Attitudes towards Down’s syndrome: follow up of a cohort of 280 cases. J Med Genet 1995;32:597-599 doi:10.1136/jmg.32.8.597

Norup, M. (1998), Attitudes towards abortion among physicians working at obstetrical and paediatric departments in Denmark. Prenat. Diagn., 18: 273–280. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1097-0223(199803)18:3<273::AID-PD256>3.0.CO;2-5

Saxton, M. and Davis, L., (2013). Disability rights and selective abortion. Chapter 7: The disability studies reader, pg. 87 – 99. 4th edition, Routledge, New York USA

Khalid Ali: London Human Rights Watch Film Festival 9-18 March 2016

7 Mar, 16 | by Ayesha Ahmad

London Human Rights Watch Film Festival, 9-18 March 2016

Various venues across London

Over a period of 10 days, London will host the ‘Human Rights Watch Film Festival’ showing 20 feature and documentary films. The opening night will screen ‘Hooligan sparrow’, a documentary in Southern China following a group of activists campaigning to unravel the truth behind the rape of a group of young school girls. ‘Mustang’ the closing night film from Turkey tells a story of five sisters fighting their family and community to have control over their education and choice of future husbands. Women as fighters for political reform in the Arab world feature in the documentary ‘The trials of Spring shorts’.




‘Hooligan sparrow’ opening the London Human Rights Watch Film Festival, 10 March 2016

The history of gay rights in different parts of the world are seen in: ‘Larry Kramer in love and anger’ which chronicles his fights as a novelist and activist to push the AIDS agenda into public health policy in the USA, and ‘Inside the Chinese closet’ which portrays real stories of fake marriages between gay men and lesbian women trying to conform to their community’s social and religious rules that do not tolerate homosexuality.

The plight of international refugees is seen in ‘Mediterranea’, ‘Desperate journey’, ‘If the dead could speak’, ‘At home in the world’ and ‘The crossing’; telling heart-breaking real and fictionalised accounts of violations of humanity towards asylum seekers from Burkina Faso, Syria, Somalia, Eretria and Iraq.

If you are interested in films focusing on Palestinian/ Israeli issues, you might want to watch; ‘P. S. Jerusalem’ about a family trying to start their life in Jerusalem, or ‘The idol’ a fictionalised account of the story of Mohammad Assaf, Palestinian winner of ‘Arab Idol’ TV music competition.

British conflicts between the residents of Tottenham, London and the Metropolitan Police that followed the killing of Mark Duggan in 2011 are analysed in ‘The hard stop’.

The rise of fundamentalism is uncovered in ‘Among the believers’ a documentary filmed in a school in the Red Mosque in Pakistan.

Most of the films screening will be followed by Q and A discussion with the film-makers.




Related reviews


Address for correspondence

Dr Khalid Ali, Screening Room editor





Stories behind closed doors: two films exploring group and drama therapy in prison

2 Apr, 14 | by Dr Khalid Ali, Senior Lecturer in Geriatrics, BSMS

The applications of dramatic and theatrical interactions between individual therapists and patient groups were first introduced by Moreno as early as 1920. The term “psycho-drama or drama therapy” was later coined by Kellerman in 1992, and was described as an effective means of supporting individuals in high secure units such as prisons and mental institutions. Two recent films “Scheherazade’s Diary” and “Starred up” explore the dynamics and experience of drama and group therapy in two different settings; in a women’s prison in Lebanon, and a men’s prison in the UK.

Scheherazade’s diary

Human Rights Watch Film Festival – March 18 – 28 2014

A review of Scheherazade’s Diary directed by Zeina Daccache, screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 18 – 28 March 2014, across London.

By Yasmin El Derby, Independent film curator and critic.

Stories of people behind bars is not an alien subject to British audiences; TV soaps back in the 1970s and 80s such as Porridge (BBC, 1974 – 1977) and Prisoner Cell Block H (ITV, 1979 – 1886) and in more recent years Bad girls (ITV1, 1999 – 2006) and HBO’s Prison break (2005 – 2009). We have also seen various documentaries set in prisons from Louis Theroux and Trevor McDonald (including an ITV Women Behind Bars series) and a recent BBC3 documentary series Life and Death Row. However, all these series have focused on the Western world. Now for an insightful look inside an Arab women’s prison comes a thought-provoking documentary film Scheherazade’s Diary directed by actress and drama therapist Zeina Daccache. The film follows the emotive journey of several women inmates through a 10 months drama therapy project in Lebanon’s infamous Baabda prison. In an unprecedented event, the audience are given intimate access into the lives of women who have been imprisoned for ‘adultery, murder, drug trafficking and fraud’. The theatre initiative entitled Scheherazade allowed the women to reveal their extremely personal stories in a supportive, therapeutic environment through group ‘therapy’. We are introduced to the background stories that made these women the societal ‘rejects’ they are: the sad stories of domestic violence, underage marriage, traumatic childhoods, tragic relationships, and failed marriages. Lebanese society, as most Arab cultures, is very conservative and seldom discusses such sensitive subjects in public. However this code of silence has been recently broken by Lebanese women demonstrating in Beirut on International Human Rights Day on the 10th of December 2013 calling for an end to women’s suffering in prison.

The idea for the project originated when Daccache saw a similar prison scheme in Italy in the 1990s. During the 34 day war with Israel in 2006, Daccache felt trapped and helpless in her own home in Lebanon, and identified with women in prison. Daccache set up Catharsis – Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy ( which received funding from the Italian Embassy in Lebanon. It took a further 2 years of lobbying the government and prison officials to allow her to create this drama therapy programme. Daccache began the project in a men prison in 2008 (resulting in the film Twelve Angry Lebanese). After the success of that project Daccache wanted to recreate the same initiative in a women’s prison.

The aim of the project was to offer women a way to express themselves through a creative artistic release of making a theatre and dance performance which family and friends of the inmates came to see. Each woman in the performance did not necessarily perform her own story to the audience, eliminating the ‘shame’ factor allowing women more freedom and confidence. The journey these women went on, their thoughts, feelings and hopes for a better future and of course, the final performance all made the documentary Scheherazade’s Diary.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the project transformed the lives of some of the women who took part; for example it resulted in one woman being offered a job by someone who saw the Scheherazade play. Not all women though had a “happy ending” as many of them still remain in Baabda prison. During the post-screening Q+A with Daccache, she revealed the significant number of women she came across who had been imprisoned on charges of ‘adultery’ but has yet to come across a man imprisoned on similar charges. The project and the film have helped shed a light on the abuse and discrimination that women face in today’s contemporary Lebanese society. The film sends a clear message “women are suffering in prison, and drama therapy may be able to help them”.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs until 28th March and the film itself can be purchased online at

Starred up

In general release in the UK

Review by Tony Gammidge, an artist, filmmaker and art therapist who runs collaborative video and animation projects, ‘Voices from behind the Fence’ with service users on forensic and psychiatric units.

This prison drama directed by David Mackenzie, with screenplay by psychotherapist Jonathan Assler is a compelling violent and brutal portrait of the extremes of life in prison in which status and indeed survival depends on how psychopathic someone is or is prepared to be.

The term ‘starred up’ refers to young offenders with a reputation for extreme violence and this is well represented in the character of Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) the main protagonist. The film starts with his arrival at an adult prison after he is moved from a young offenders institute to the prison where his father (Ben Mendelson) is also serving a prison sentence. In a symbolic sense, this coincidence could be seen as the son returning to the source of his violence (in the form of his psychopathic father). The only chink of light in this tragic scenario is a ‘volunteer, Oliver (Rupert Friend) who runs a ‘therapy’ group in the high-security unit. Oliver persuades the authorities to give Eric one more chance after a particularly violent introduction to prison life, and to give Eric the opportunity to join his ‘therapy group’ to work on his ‘anger’ issues (a major understatement!). Eric though is predictably reluctant, suspicious and scathing at this helping hand and accuses Oliver of either merely wanting to look tough by taking someone ‘like him’ on or having a sexual motivation. However just as the group begins to earn Eric’s trust, a sadly predictable turn of events brings him back to his starting point.

For all of the film’s explosive and relentless violence there is a much understated   intelligence and subtlety at play from Oliver in his motivation for doing what he does without pay, and certainly without gratitude neither from the prison authority nor from the prisoners; Oliver life in prison is a health and safety nightmare.  The group work itself, its process and dynamics are fascinating and as someone who works on secure psychiatric units, I would have liked to see more of these intimate and reflective moments. However they are frustratingly brief in favour of the brutality and violence that drives the film. Perhaps this is an intentional metaphor for the reality of life in prison where therapeutic processes might be rare and indeed often railroaded by the very people and authorities who should be supporting them. I was reminded of this extract from Felicity De Zulueta’s book ‘From Pain to Violence; The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness’ who asks this question;

“To what extent is our society responsible for the abused individual’s violent behaviour?” (De Zulueta p. 233)

Cleverly the film doesn’t give us any easy answers; any background information on the film characters is sketchy and hinted at rather than drawn too definitively. Showing the skeleton rather than the full flesh of the characters is one of the film’s strength as it gives the audience the liberty to fill in the gaps in the characters’ stories. I was particularly left craving for more information about Oliver and why he ‘needed’ to do this work. The script writer, Jonathan Assler, winner of the best British newcomer at the London Film Festival (LFF) 2013, said that he based his characters partly on people he saw while working in prisons.

The performances from Jack O’Connell as Eric Love, Ben Mendelson as his father and Rupert Friend as Oliver are electric and completely immersive as are the rest of the cast. The cinematography manages to be both unforgiving in its portrayal of the harsh environment it portrays but also beautiful in some of the details. For instance at the end of the film Eric looks out through a broken window into the prison yard where his fellow group members call him showing empathy and concern. As small and brief a gesture as it is, this sense of comradeship remains a faint glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a damning document about our criminal justice system.

Review edited by Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, editor of “The screening room”

Sleeping with the Enemy: Arab Doctors Struggling with Personal and Professional Dilemmas

7 Mar, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

A review of “The Attack” and “The Last Man” showing at the “Discover Arab cinema”- British Film Institute- London 2014

“The Attack”, National Film Theatre (‘NFT’) London 23rd and 25th February 2014

“The Last Man”, NFT London 3rd and 8th March


London is expanding its cinematic and cultural horizons and the British Film Institute (BFI) is showing the best of Arab cinema in a year-long season


Two Lebanese films screening at the event explore the current political and social upheaval in the Middle East and its impact on doctors.


The first film “The Attack”, directed by Ziad Doueiri is a sensitively-told doctor story mixing several genres: a political thriller, a character study and a romantic love story. Using a compelling narrative, including flash backs, we are introduced to Dr Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) a renowned Arab surgeon who is given the highest accolade of a career achievement by the Israeli government – the first time such an honour is bestowed upon a Palestinian surgeon. Socially, he is happily married to a beautiful wife Siham (Reymonde Amsellem). His peaceful life style is shattered when he is called to identify the remains of his wife Siham who was killed in a bomb-suicide attack in Tel Aviv. To make matters worse, the Israeli police suspect that his dead wife was the actual bomber. Traumatised and shocked, Dr Amin is brutally questioned by the Israeli police about the motivations of his wife. He cannot believe that his loving wife could have done such an atrocious deed. In his quest for the truth, Dr Amin travels to the Palestinian city of Nablus to find an explanation, and this brings him in contact with several religious and political figures whose motivations are far from clear.  As a doctor upholding the sanctity of human life and condemning all acts of intentional murder; he realises that he was “sleeping with the enemy” – his own wife.

The second film “The Last Man” directed by Ghassan Salhab” deals with another successful doctor struggling with a different type of enemy: his own psychopathic and criminal tendencies. At the beginning of the film Dr Khalil (Carlos Chahine) is a caring doctor, popular amongst his patients and friends who enjoys diving. The political background of the doctor’s story is closely observed with daily bombs and torture of civilians in Lebanon and Palestine by the Israeli state. Still life goes on in Beirut with loud music blasting away from the clubs that Dr Khalil frequently visits at night. Alongside this volatile external environment, Dr Khalil is slowly changing into a repulsive character who engages in sexual relationships with the mother of one of his patients. The narrative gets more bizarre and disturbing when he becomes a nocturnal creature living off the blood of innocent victims who he preys on from the streets of Beirut. Trying to resist his “vampire” urges for human blood, Dr Khalil still has insight into his own “criminal tendencies”; as a doctor he should be saving lives, not taking them away to feed his nocturnal addiction. On some level, the film can be seen as a study of “obsession, addiction, a moral and psychological decline” of a successful professional who is troubled by his own demons.

Raising several ethical questions, both films suggest that doctors are the products of existing turbulent times and conflict. Ghassan Salhab (director of “The Last Man”) describes his main character Dr Khalil as a “mutant ghost of the city” born out of the social and political disorder in Beirut.

Both films are a timely reminder that the society and media are experiencing a significant shift in their views of the “doctor” as a flawed human being as well as a professional: the “personal and professional boundaries” in doctors’ lives can be blurred resulting in ethical and moral dilemma at a universal manner. Doctors can not remain “oblivious bystanders” in their countries’ changing social and political demography, and if they do they end up losing their identity and closest members of their family such as Dr Jaafari in “The Attack”. Dr Jaafari’s was ambitious to reach the highest academic and professional recognition amongst his peers, but in the process of doing so he alienated himself from his wife and family. His trip back to Nablus proved to him how much he was unwelcomed in his own mother’s house because he made peace with the Israeli establishment.

Recent media attention has focused on doctors in Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria where some doctors collaborated with the oppressive regimes in torturing political opponents. Supporting a dictatorship in such crimes against humanity also violates the basic principles of medicine where a doctor’s primary role is to “never do harm to anyone” as worded in the “Hippocrates Oath”. On a global level, the situation is not all “doom and gloom” as there are several shining examples of altruistic doctors such as those from “Medicins sans Frontieres” who work in disaster areas such as the Philippines. How some doctors choose to be in either group is “food for thought”.

These two films portray doctors as fallible human beings living with their “enemies”. The “enemy” may be external such as a government or family, as in “The attack”, but, more disturbingly, in other situations such as in “The Last Man” the ultimate “enemy” may be a doctor’s own “internal demons”.

Correspondence: Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School

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