Nermine Hammam’s Metanoia film is a 7 minute work based on three months the artist spent, in 2009, visiting and photographing the patients of a state mental asylum in Egypt. Hammam was eventually banned from visiting the Abbassiya Asylum. Metanoia, her photographic series that documented the alarming conditions at the asylum, was heavily censored by the Egyptian State. Still, the Metanoia film stands as a testament to what the artist calls: “the unexpectedly strong personal reaction elicited by my experience of the asylum...it is a working out of my shame at the horrors I witnessed and was unable to prevent…The film is a healing process…it is about the patients and it is about me.”
Metanoia film is a dense tapestry of personal, and often highly charged images, each carefully selected and significant to the artist. Influenced by her early training in film, Hammam interlaces black and white footage of the mental asylum with iconic scenes from the work of film directors such as Lars Von Trier and Ingmar Bergmann and ‘childhood memorabilia’ - the image of her parents’ wedding, a fragment of cartoon, an interview with actor Bruce Lee.
There is no linear narrative, but a dense patchwork of images flashing onto the screen, first to the rhythmic sound of a beating heart, but later, to the sound of music and the voices of female patients in the asylum: “ Together, these many images add meaning, not in the sense of time, but in the sense of depth and association.” Hammam describes this narrative style as reflecting: “how the mind works; how I see the world.”
The film explores “the world and its double” or the subjective nature of reality that she encountered in the asylum: “The Metanoia images questioned our reality and our subjectivity as humans,” Hammam explains and in her film reality is not quite what it appears to be. Politicians debate at the UN, advertisements glorify perfect couples planning their perfect home, consumerism is key to happiness. Yet there is a dark underside to this glistening surface of the world – it lies in the dark, pungent corridors of the mental asylum where humanity is incarcerated and hidden from view. Reality, says one voice: “is the tip of the iceberg of irrationality that we have managed to drag ourselves up onto for a few panting moments.”
In a world of doubles, where rigid constructs of sanity are enforced and the opposite of conformity is the asylum, humanity hides behind facades and masks. “Facing oneself, truly, is today the most difficult part” says Hammam. A man looks in the mirror and is consumed by it, as the solid surface transforms into a basin of black liquid that engulfs him.
A string of narrators, seen and unseen, articulate Metanoia film’s intricate mesh of symbols and meaning. Actor Bruce Lee tells us of the ease with which he adopts a ‘cocky façade’ or invents some ‘fancy moves’ but concedes: “to express yourself honestly…not lying to yourself, that my friend is a very hard thing to do…” The haunting voice of Marlom Brando, in the classic film ‘Apocalypse Now,’ snarls:” You have no right to judge me”, while Alice in Wonderland voices our collective anxiety when she exclaims: “But I don’t want to go among mad people”. The Cheshire Cat reminds us that we are all a hair’s breadth away from incarceration: “most everyone is mad”, he tells Alice, as the film cuts to black and white images of armed conflict.
The character ‘He’ in Director Alain Resnais’ 1959 cult film ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ denies the existence of a hospital at Hiroshima, while his female companion insists: “I have seen the hospital, I am sure, the hospital exists in Hiroshima, how could I have avoided it? “The words are directed at Egypt’s state officials who renounced and censored Hammam’s work.
The most powerful ‘double’, explored by Metanoia film, is humanity’s capacity to contain within itself, at once, the infinite power to love and to mutilate and destroy. True horror lies in the violence that Man is capable of inflicting upon nature and himself. Hammam’s work references Lars Von Trier’s cult horror film, Anti-Christ, which chronicles the descent of a couple, from love to madness and murder. Meanwhile, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ draws parrallels between the ending of a love affair and the events of Hiroshima. Metanoia Film cuts back and forth between images of the Japanese hospital and footage of the Egyptian asylum, until one is indistinguishable from the other.
In a world enslaved to science, oblivious to a more ancient, archaic truth, nature is violated in the name of ‘progress’. Animals stand transfixed, staring at the lens, bewildered by humanity. An amputated dog limps through the wreckage of city of Hiroshima, wounded by its brush with society. At the asylum, a female patient rhythmically stacks plastic cups on the stump of tree. In this physical and Spiritual No Man’s Land, the woman instinctively strives to articulate her existence through purpose and action. Hammam explains: “when you maim someone, you don’t just maim them physically but also mentally, spiritually and ideologically – that is the worst kind of damage.”
Bruce Lee, the archetypal warrior, raises his shoes defiantly to our face, adopting his self-confessed cocky posturing; but in the closing frames of the film there is only aimlessness, as a crowd of figures ascends a hill, moving slowly, and without purpose, towards a forest.
Perhaps the Metanoia Film’s most startling image is a fragment from Ingmar Bergman’s film ‘Persona’, where a young boy, stands, small and vulnerable, before the larger-than-life picture of a woman that dwarfs him and closes her eyes to him. In a world that has confused the image with reality, his small hand touches the cold two-dimensional surface of her face in search of warmth and solace.
Yet, there is solace to be found in Metanoia Film. Images of disembodied hands caressing a human body, remind us that, in the end, all we have is the consolation of human contact. It is impossible to withstand the abyss without human touch – it is all that stands between us and the great Alone in which we are fatherless, godless and unprotected.