MedFest, Egypt’s first medically themed film forum, is back for the second edition with a brand new theme. This year’s event will take us on a cinematic voyage About Her. This could be your sister, your mother, your friend, or even you. Ladies, this one’s solely dedicated to you!
The festival, which is the first of its kind in the country, took off last year, 2017, and revolved around shattering stereotypes and false beliefs regarding mental illness. This time, the event will be tackling issues related to women’s health and how it’s dealt with in movies. Motherhood, puberty, pregnancy, menopause, female genital mutilation, cancer, and gender-based violence are all ironically considered taboos. However, this forum’s main objective is to stimulate a dialogue by linking a vital aspect of life; health, to an artistic medium such as film.
The event, held in Cairo and Alexandria, will feature screenings of relevant independent films that were carefully selected for the cause. Those films include both short films and feature films by international filmmakers from 10 different countries. The screenings will be followed by panel discussions between the audience, filmmakers, and those in this medical field; both doctors and students. In addition, a relevant program of workshops will be held in parallel. However, this will be limited to Cairo only.
The subject of mental illness is a taboo one in most of Egypt’s social circles. Those suffering from mental illnesses are either regarded as “crazy” or refuse to acknowledge that they need professional help, no doubt due to a society that frowns upon the notion of psychiatry.
MedFest, a movie forum that brings movies and medicine together, has this year decided to shed light on the off-limits topic of mental health and wellbeing with its Egypt edition. BECAUSE sat down for a chat with one of the local edition’s founders, medical doctor Mina El Naggar, to discuss the festival’s approach to this year’s theme.
Tell us a bit about MedFest, what it is and how it began.
MedFest is a medical themed interactive film festival screening a carefully selected group of short films, followed by discussions between people working in the health care and medical fields, medical students, psychologists, filmmakers and the general audience.
It began more than a year ago, when I met Dr. Khalid Ali, a professor of geriatrics and cinema critic, during the European film panorama and we found that we share similar interests in art and medicine. Later, he attended the UK version of MedFest, after which he suggested: why don’t we make this event in Egypt? So, we started building our own edition that is inspired by the UK edition, with Egyptian, Arab, and international films relevant to our cultural problems along with the international selection of the MedFest UK.
We started in Cairo and screened 14 films over two days. This year the forum is taking place in Alexandria on April 22. We are tweaking it a bit by making the festival for only one day and adding three award winning films from Sudan, Switzerland and Colombia produced in 2016. These films will be added to the previous selection, which includes films from the UK, Canada, the UAE and Egypt. The films vary between short features, animations, documentary and film essays.
How have people reacted to the festival so far?
In Cairo, around 250 people spanning all age groups and professions attended. The overall response was that it’s very interesting to see these films through the eyes of medicine, which open up new humane dimensions and aspects of the screened films.
Why do you think this is important?
I think it’s important to start building this conversation between filmmakers and people in the health care system as both are powerful tools that affect our being in this interactive setting. Later on, we are hoping that it spreads and has a cumulative effect over the years for filmmakers to produce more accurate and non-stigmatizing films about medical conditions and to create an understanding for health care providers about the power of film and cinema.
How do you think Egyptians view mental illness?
I think people vary in how they view mental illness. Mostly they over dramatize or stigmatize the idea of mental illness or on the other side they deal super lightly with those who have a mental health issue or make a joke out of it. Very few actually deal with mental health issues with integrity.
What kind of change are you trying to bring about?
A slow, but steady, awareness by keeping the event active on a yearly basis, and discussing different medical topics from there psychological/humane aspect and the aspect of an artistic filmmaker to give both sides a better understanding.
What should be done to change the perspective of those who find it shameful?
Massive awareness campaigns about mental health even before the onset of mental illness, the presence of a psychologist in every institute, programs should deal with them properly and more initiatives like MedFest ought to be initiated.
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.
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.
The conversation is lively as I wait in the foyer of Cinema El Ebda in Zamalek to attend the first local MedFest film festival. The foyer is done up in stylish marble and red velvet, and I am surrounded by a crowd of filmmakers, actors, doctors, and medical students. As the photographers’ cameras flash, we are ushered into the theater where for the next four hours we will be watching short films and debating the bridge between art and medicine.
MedFest, a series of screenings of short films, Q&A sessions and panel discussions, seeks to start a dialog on the potential benefits of creating a stronger bond between art and science. MedFest was first held in the United Kingdom and is brought to Egypt this year by a trio of medical lecturers and practitioners: clinical nutritionist, actor and filmmaker Mina El Naggar, senior lecturer at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK Khalid Ali, and Hatem Alaa, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in England.
“Medicine is a very rigid science, and when doctors start speaking, they sometimes neglect the emotions and feelings of the patient. Cinema, on the other hand, is a magical world where everything can happen and where emotions are well captured. Bringing these two elements together can create a healing power,” El Naggar explains.
Raising awareness of mental illnesses is also a key element in the festival, adds El Naggar, who says, “the crossover between art and medicine can help break down some of the taboos surrounding mental illnesses.”
One of the short films screened at the event was the documentary My Father, produced in 2015 by Mohamed Adel who began directing and producing short films seven years ago. Adel’s works have been shown at several film festivals in the Middle East and at the AVIFF Art Film Festival in Cannes, where My Father was also screened in 2015. In the documentary, Adel films his own father and his daily life. But there is a twist to the movie: Adel’s father does not know he is being filmed, which gives the movie a brutally honest feeling.
“My father has psychological issues, and having such issues here in Egypt is very complicated, since not a lot of people admit to having them. It’s a difficult matter to talk about. I tried talking to my father about it, and I told him that I would go with him to see a doctor, but he refused,” Adel says.
An especially memorable scene is one where Adel’s father is seen slowly wheeling his wheelchair toward Adel and his camera. The father’s right leg stops just below the knee, and white bandages are rolled around the leg. The scene stands out because the invisible mental illness suddenly becomes very obvious in the physical handicap, even though the two diseases may not be related.
There is not much talking in the film, and it is never explained what psychological issues the father has, or why his lower leg is missing. Even though mental illnesses are surrounded by taboos, Adel believes that Egyptians are beginning to talk more about mental health. “I think that after the revolution people have become more open-minded. They try to talk about different issues, but we are still just in the beginning of opening up and talking about these problems,” he says.
Debates were also a big part of the event, and topics such as family relations, caretaker responsibilities, and loneliness were discussed by both the audience and the panel participants. One of the guests invited to take part in the panel discussions was Karim Hanafi, an Egyptian writer, producer, and film director.
“I believe there is a strong relation between art and medicine. Some of the most important artists produced some of their best pieces while suffering from a mental illness,” Hanafi points out. Although Hanafi has not directly tackled mental illnesses as a topic in his own films, he has experienced psychological issues himself and believes that “all filmmakers experience depression at least once in their lifetime, otherwise they are not real filmmakers.”
Much of the discussion revolved around the way mental illnesses are portrayed onscreen. Should directors consult with specialists to ensure characters with mental illnesses are portrayed correctly? Or are filmmakers free to interpret the conditions as they wish?
“I don’t like when anyone, in order to be correct, starts to control others. That’s not right. Nobody has the right to put limits on other people’s way of expressing themselves,” Hanafi argues.
In the 13 short films screened at MedFest, mental illnesses and medication were portrayed in a variety of ways. Some more clinically correct than others, remarks El Naggar. “I hope to achieve an increased awareness within the artistic community that filmmakers are responsible for the way mental illnesses are perceived in their movies. Drama and entertainment should not be created at the expense of medicine,” El Naggar adds.
Now that the debate has been started, the coordinators behind the film festival are now planning on bringing MedFest to other parts of the country. “I hope MedFest will spread to several universities in Egypt. Right now we’re planning on having a similar event in the Library of Alexandria and L’Atelier D’Alexandrie,” says El Naggar.
MedFest Egypt is supported by the British Council, the Ministry of Culture, the Cultural Development Fund, the Royal College of Psychiatry and El Naggar Clinic. For more on upcoming MedFest events visit facebook.com/medfestegypt or follow them on Twitter @Medfest.