Zelal -- Film Review

A touching journey into Egyptian mental institutions.

VENICE -- Perhaps the first Egyptian documentary about the world of mental illness, "Zelal" opens a window on the residents of two locked-door hospitals in Cairo, telling their strange and moving stories with great compassion.

The patients are a mixture of Christians and Muslims, often not that different from the people glimpsed in the outside world. Co-directed by well-known producer Marianne Khoury, who made many of Youssef Chahine’s films, and award-winning documentarist Mustapha Hasnaoui, the film will be of particular interest to festivals.

The movie opens on a weeping father who brings his son in for treatment. His moving account underlines the shame and dishonor of mental illness in Egyptian society, where it’s still a taboo subject. This theme recurs in the story told by a young woman who has been sexually rejected by her husband. In another snapshot, an older woman who looks forward to leaving the hospital makes frantic preparations to return to her brother’s family, only to be cast out a few weeks later.

Suggesting the thin line between sanity and madness, a veiled Muslim woman visiting her delusional son in the hospital describes how, in her opinion, he is the victim of a spell cast by a Christian she-devil who installed a TV antenna on the roof while wearing see-through clothing.

Though the wards are poor and run-down, with broken plumbing and torn-up mattresses, under the surface there lies a world very similar to equivalent Western institutions. Interestingly, one of the hospitals seems to be run by Christian Copts, and Jesus is as familiar to the patients as Allah.

Nor is all bleak and dark: There are laughing patients and those who tenderly watch out for their friends. Some of the long-term residents work at odd jobs.

Cinematographers Tamer Joseph and Victor Credimake the most of HDV, giving the film constant visual interest with contrasting colors and beautifully lit faces.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Misr International Film (Youssef Chahine), 3B Prods., Centre Cinematographique Marocain, Dubai Entertainment & Media Organization
Directors/screenwriters: Marianne Khoury, Mustapha Hasnaoui
Producers:  Marianne Khoury, Gabriel Khoury, Jean Brehat
Directors of photography: Tamer Joseph, Victor Credi
Editor: Doaa Fadel
Sales agent: Misr International Films
Unrated, 90 minutes