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medical humanities

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.
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2013/Dec-11/240627-activists-call-for-reform-at-womens-prisons-in-lebanon.ashx#ixzz2xXjLRAJe

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 (www.catharsislcdt.org) 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 https://ff.hrw.org/london and the film itself can be purchased online at http://www.antoineonline.com=

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.  www.tonygammidge.com

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”

Ayesha Ahmad: ‘Unorthodox Sufferings; The face of the man’

7 Oct, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

I will remember the face of the man who I had not expected to see.

In suburban Johannesburg, the soil begins to turn into a rich gold color. The soil summons an enticing depth to the earth, where as Jean-Luc Nancy (1994) writes, we find existence as the cradle between our birth and our death. From our footsteps, the ancestors rise and embody the agency of new life. There is life upon death, upon death.

And this life has a heart that is vivid; a pulsation that is energising; a sound that is lulling. The suffering grows within each person as if the heart is enlarging so not to feign life; a suffering that bleeds the brightest red to signify the liveliest dance.

more…

James Poskett: Naval Expertise Conference, May 10-11 2013

4 Aug, 12 | by James Poskett

For those regularly following this blog, you’ll know I’m keen on exploring how maritime and medical history can be brought together, particularly with respect to developing critical global histories of both. If you share my enthusiasm, you might be interested in the following conference, due to take place 10-11th May 2013 at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

Naval Expertise and the Making of the Modern World

One of the four major themes of the conference is ‘science and medicine’ including ‘the management of disease at sea’, so it would be great to see interested parties either presenting or attending. The call for papers is open now, with a deadline of 31st October 2012, and registration will open later in the year.

Ayesha Ahmad: Seminar June 20th 2012 on ‘Narrative Epileptology’ by Dr Maria Vaccarella, Kings College London

19 Jun, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Dr Maria Vaccarella will present her ongoing research at an open seminar at the Centre for Health and Humanities, King’s College London.

Dr Vaccarella’s subject refers to the cultural history of epilepsy in the West, and narrative medicine applied to epilepsy care; creating a valuable insight into the interaction between health and the humanities.

The seminar will be held at 18.00-19.30 on June 20th at King’s College London (Strand Campus). All are welcome.

James Poskett: Digital surgeons at sea

30 May, 12 | by James Poskett

A few months ago I was raving about the prospects of a maritime history of medicine, the ship’s medicine chest being the focus of some of my latest studies.

Since writing that piece, the Wellcome Trust and National Archives have completed the digitisation of the Royal Navy Medical Officers’ journals. The project, entitled Surgeons at Sea, allows budding maritime historians to view and search over 1000 records online, encompassing the years 1793 to 1880.

There’s a really diverse range of themes to be uncovered. For those interested in everything from shark bites to venereal disease (and, of course, that all-pervasive medical tonic: rum), I’d certainly recommend taking the time to browse.

Ayesha Ahmad: Call For Abstracts – Second Annual Western Michigan University Medical Humanities Conference

26 Mar, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Second Annual Western Michigan University Medical Humanities Conference

September 27-28, 2012; Kalamazoo, Michigan

Proposals should be submitted electronically by July 15—in either .doc/.docx or .pdf format—to
medical-humanities@wmich.edu

more…

Ayesha Ahmad: Introducing ‘The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory’ by Dr Angela Woods

21 Mar, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

‘The Sublime Object of Psychiatry’ studies representations of schizophrenia, and acknowledges a wide range of disciplines, including biological and phenomenological psychiatry, psychoanalysis, critical psychology, anti-psychiatry, and postmodern philosophy. Such an analysis permits a privileged view of the way in which schizophrenia has been framed within different discourses.

more…

James Poskett: The social narcissist

18 Mar, 12 | by James Poskett

Me, me, me. What could be more antisocial than a preoccupation with one’s own life at the expense of others? The Greek myth of Narcissus perhaps captured it best. The proud young hunter, uninterested in the affections of others, found satisfaction in his own reflection. Consumed by self-love and unable to leave his mirror image, Narcissus’s obsession led to his eventual death. Carvaggio’s painting of this, the original narcissist, is in fact featured on the latest edition of Medical Humanities in which Alessia Pannese’s article alludes to a possible neurological cause.

But is narcissism really such an antisocial tendency? I was recently lucky enough to attend a talk by Julie Walsh at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, which radically challenged my assumptions. more…

Ayesha Ahmad: CFP: Comics and Medicine: Navigating the Margins, 22-24 July 2012, Toronto, Canada

14 Mar, 12 | by Ayesha Ahmad

The third international interdisciplinary conference* on comics and
medicine will continue to explore the intersection of sequential
visual arts and medicine. This year we will highlight perspectives
that are often under-represented in graphic narratives, such as
depictions of the Outsider or Other in the context of issues such as
barriers to healthcare, the stigma of mental illness and disability,
and the silent burden of caretaking.

more…

James Poskett: Medicine adrift at sea

21 Feb, 12 | by James Poskett

You’re on board a small British merchant ship in the English Channel and you start to feel very ill. There’s no doctor on board. What do you do? If the year is 1844, you’re in luck. The Government has recently made it compulsory for all merchant vessels to carry medicines, to be kept in a small wooden chest. So open up, take a swig of the laudanum, and relax.

But before you drift off into an opiate-induced stupor, take a moment to consider the history of how a very particular set of drugs ended up on every British merchant ship. It’s a topic that started to interest me as I stumbled upon a collection of tiny pamphlets, each designed to be slipped inside one of the drawers of the ship’s medicine chest. With titles such as The Guide-Book to the Government Medicine Chest, they list the medicines to be taken aboard along with directions for use. Well before anything resembling the National Health Service, let alone the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, we have a government mandate to stock certain medicines. So, these chests, along with the accompanying pamphlets, provide a fantastic opportunity to study the early history of public health and the regulation of drugs.

more…

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