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

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”

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