Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, held this month, was remarkable for a parallel programme of seminars and workshops on links between cinema, artists’ mental health, and life in general.
The panel discussion which attracted most attention was about the mental health of actors, whose work calls for simulated emotions, role-playing, and other psychologically demanding efforts.
The nine-day event, the fifth since the festival was created in 2017, opened in the Red Sea resort of El Gouna on October 14.
A panel titled “Breathe, Talk, Perform: A Take on Psychological Well-Being of Actors” discussed actors’ psychological vulnerability to rejected role applications, failure in performance tests, negative audience reaction, or criticism.
Mariam Naoum, a screenwriter, drew attention to the sensitivity of creative persons and urged directors to find ways of reducing the psychological pressure on actors. She also called for the presence of a psychologist on film sets, saying this could improve productivity and creativity.
The panel discussion was organised in collaboration with Medfest Egypt, which describes itself as a touring forum using films to raise public awareness about mental health.
More Awareness of Actors’ Mental Health
Nabil Elkot, a consultant psychiatrist, told Al-Fanar Media that opening the door to discuss actors’ well-being is in itself a remarkable development in the film and drama industry.
The new generation of actors is willing to speak out about the psychological problems facing artists and to consult psychiatrists in drama production dealing with mental illness, he said.
“Once an actor becomes a star, the situation becomes more complex due to his inability to exercise his normal life.”Nabil Elkot
A psychiatrist who works as a consultant on films and TV series
Elkot worked as a consultant on films such as “The Blue Elephant,” by the Egyptian director Marwan Hamed, and television series like “Under Control.” The movie, made in 2014, is about a psychotherapist in a hospital for the criminally insane who discovers that his best friend is among the patients. The TV series, made in 2015, portrays an Egyptian woman who is a former heroin addict. Elkot said his job was “to avoid distorted stereotypes about mental patients and psychotherapists alike.”
Actors, he went on, are “subjected to huge pressures … in a high-competitive atmosphere.” They embody their roles to make them credible and some end up living their parts in ordinary life “and even in their dreams.” Such artists need mechanisms to get out of the role and resume their normal life, he said.
Gallery: A Focus on Actors’ Well-Being
An actor sometimes works for more than 20 hours continuously, Elkot said. “Once an actor becomes a star, the situation becomes more complex due to his inability to exercise his normal life.”
Elkot said drama schools should provide guidelines for actors to understand the psychological stages they go through, and that specialists should support their mental well-being.
The discussions included the film industry and its ability to raise awareness. The Lebanese director Zeina Daccache, whose latest film “The Blue Inmates” was screened at El Gouna, spoke in a panel titled “Cinema as a Tool for Societal Change.”
“The interest in discussing mental health issues in art festivals such as the El Gouna Film Festival is quite important.”Zeina Daccache
A Lebanese director
An actress and psychotherapist, Daccache founded the Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy (Catharsis) in 2007, after studying drama therapy in the United States. The Greek word catharsis means purification and refers to the emotional release experienced by spectators of high tragedy. It has come also to mean release from psychological pain through art.
“The interest in discussing mental health issues in art festivals such as the El Gouna Film Festival is quite important,” Daccache told Al-Fanar Media. “Especially since the entire world is still on its way out of the ordeal of the Covid-19 pandemic, with its subsequent quarantine and individual isolation that put us in a greater confrontation with mental illness.”
For the past decade, Daccache has been making documentaries inside Lebanon’s prisons. Her experience led her to work on “drama therapy,” using plays in which prisoners can participate as actors.
In her latest film, inmates at Roumieh Prison produce a play about their fellow prisoners who suffer from mental illness and are filed under “mad and possessed” by the penal code.
“It may open the horizons for artists to achieve the balance between an actor’s real personality and the personalities he performs.”Ahmed Malek
An Egyptian actor
“In this film, we call for the amendment of the Penal Code of 1943, which states that every insane, imbecile or possessed person involved in a crime will remain in prison until his recovery,” she said. “Our film referred to the misuse of these expressions … especially since mental illness is not a reason for him to stay in prison. In fact, if he remains there without psychological treatment, he will never be released from prison.”
An earlier Daccache film, “12 Angry Lebanese” (2009), helped bring about a law to reduce penalties for good behavior, while “Scheherazade’s Diary,” filmed in 2013 in Baabda women’s prison, advocated legislation to protect women against domestic violence.
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The Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek said drama therapy had helped him to tackle depression. Comparing it to daily fitness exercises or reading, he said, “It may open the horizons for artists to achieve the balance between an actor’s real personality and the personalities he performs.”
To read more on the topic of mental health in Arab societies and the use of artistic expression to promote psychological well-being, see the following selection of articles from Al-Fanar Media’s archives.
- “Former Syrian Prisoners Reenact Their Experiences on Stage”
- “A Greek Classic Resurfaces in Syrian Women’s Voices”
- “Palestine’s ‘Cinema Bus’ Aims to Revive Art and Culture in Gaza”
- “Exhibition Combines Research and Painting to Portray Modern Slavery’s Survivors”
- “A Dubai Artist Helps Women Process Difficult Times Through Creativity”
- “Iraqi Researchers Use Art to Help Sexual-Violence Survivors”