By: Egypt Today Mon, Apr. 3, 2017

By Anna Bernsen 

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. 

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