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Madness and its boundaries are the subject of Marianne Khoury and Mustapha Hasnaoui’s “Zelal,” a stark cry of recognition for Egypt’s mentally ill. Favoring a non-narrated, pure docu approach, the helmers bring their camera into two asylums to interview inmates whose stories speak of medieval attitudes and a criminal lack of understanding. As the country’s infrastructure crumbles, these marginalized souls have no where else to go. Tough and unblinking, “Zelal” is the kind of fest-only material that could still make an impact.

At the start, text informs viewers that the mental patients interviewed often suffer from hallucinations, making them unreliable interlocutors. Even with this in mind, it’s clear these are people society has failed twice: first by the families who abandoned them, and then by the state, with its shockingly ill-equipped institutions. Nurses are barely seen, therapy is nonexistent, mattresses are unspeakable and patients roam the corridors without any structure to their days. A young man talks of electroshock treatment, while men and women who were committed decades earlier now have no alternatives; as one elderly woman says, “Leave? I buried my youth here.”

A few relatives are also interviewed, including a weeping father at his wits’ end, unwilling to commit his son but incapable of looking after him at home. As the docu reveals, the lack of access to mental-health professionals — at least for the working class — means families are left to flounder ignorantly on their own. Compounding the problem is Egyptian society’s increasingly religious bent, quick to ascribe madness to supernatural rather than psychological or medical origins.

It’s something of a shock to realize the helmers apparently had full access to these patients, and that the only people around in the criminally understaffed hospitals apart from the inmates themselves seem to be a few orderlies. Enormous sensitivity is needed to prevent films of this sort from appearing exploitative or sensational, and thankfully Khoury, best known as the late Youssef Chahine’s producer, and Hasnaoui find the right balance in showing the squalor but granting the residents a dignified individuality. HD lensing is clean and intimate.

Zelal

Egypt-France-Morocco-United Arab Emirates

  • Production: A Misr Intl. Films (Youssef Chahine), 3B Prods., Moroccan Cinema Center, Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization production, in association with the Dubai Film Festival. (International sales: Misr Intl. Films, Cairo.) Produced by Marianne Khoury, Gabriel Khoury. Directed, written by Marianne Khoury, Mustapha Hasnaoui.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Tamer Joseph, Victor Credi; editor, Doaa Fadel; sound, Gasser Khorsed, Sameh Gamal, Gadou Naudin. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 8, 2010. Running time: 92 MIN.
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