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COMMISSIONED response to THE BLUE INMATES by Natasha Anthea Lay

Updated: May 10, 2023

A Mental Illness that Affects the Sane

by Natasha Anthea Lay

"We cannot be cured, but we can get better."

A man is admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit. Like many patients in the psychiatric unit, he has been admitted multiple times before – the first time he was admitted, it was under a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The second time, he was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Upon the nurse handing him the man’s file, the psychiatrist assigned to the man exclaims: ‘Good lord, who were the two useless idiots who saw this man before me? Depression? Bipolar disorder? This man is clearly a schizophrenic!’ The nurse shrunk. ‘Doctor,’ he sheepishly replied, ‘I’m afraid it was you.’

For many, diagnosis can be a double-edged sword. It can be a moment of clarity, when everything fits into place. For some, it can be a life sentence – after all, it is generally accepted in psychiatry that mental illnesses cannot be cured, only managed. This takes a more sinister tone for the inmates of the Blue Building of Roumieh Prison, Lebanon, as captured in Zeina Daccache’s documentary The Blue Inmates (2021).

In Lebanon, prisoners deemed ‘insane,’ ‘mad,’ or ‘possessed’ are effectively given a life sentence regardless of the actual length of their sentence. This is due to a law under the Lebanese Penal Code (1943), which stipulates that said offenders shall be incarcerated in a specialised psychiatric unit – ‘The Blue Building’ in Roumieh – until the same tribunal that convicted them are satisfied that they have been ‘cured’. This is the case for many of the inmates of the Blue Building, including Itani, a former Calculus and Arabic teacher, who was sentenced to one year in prison and yet has been at the Blue Building for thirty-seven years. The Blue Inmates documents the creation process of Johar… Up in the Air, a play about the inmates in The Blue Building, which serves both as therapy for the inmates and as a plea for prison reform for the audience, which included important ministers and politicians.

In The Blue Inmates, Daccache, both the director of the film and the play that lies at the centre of it, conducts interviews and records their rehearsal process leading to the final performance. Daccache has created similar works in Roumieh prison before, but what sets Johar apart is the fact that prisoners from the ‘normal’ block act the roles of the inmates of the Blue Building, as the latter are not allowed out of the building or to perform in front of an audience. One of the actors, Taher, specifically chooses to portray Tfaily, an inmate from the Blue Building that he had known outside of Roumieh prison. The film gives insight into not only the creation process but also the inner workings of drama therapy – in one scene, we see a story being told during a drama therapy session with the Blue Inmates, to the actors watching footage of the discussions, to the rehearsal, to the final performance of the story. It’s a powerful way to show the transformative effect that drama therapy can have not only on an individual but a community of people.

Although the film touches on the mental health of the inmates, it swiftly avoids the trap of reducing them to their life sentence, and the film’s strength lies in its focus on the humanity of the people it portrays. We see them laugh about the games they played as children, we see them smoke and sing Joe Dassin songs. We see them talk openly about being punished with hot knives as a child and cry, “it’s only normal that someone like me would suffer from mental illness, right?”

For a field so fraught with uncertainties and doubts, it is astounding that clinical diagnoses and the idea of total recovery holds so much ground in our collective understanding of mental illness. In 2007, Dr Robert Spitzer, psychiatrist and driving force behind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), was asked how exactly he and his team arrived at the decision that a minimum of five separate symptoms were required for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. Spitzer simply replied, ‘Because four just seemed like not enough, and six seemed like too much.’

‘The overwhelming majority of psychiatric diagnoses aren’t arrived by looking at blood tests or anything of the sort,’ writes Nathan Filer, writer and former mental health nurse. ‘Rather, it is the words people say – or do not say – as interpreted by professionals, that as much as anything else will determine a diagnosis.’

It is easy enough to think that we do not have this problem in the West – exact figures may vary by source, but it is widely accepted that mental illness is exceptionally prevalent in prisons. Prisons have become de-facto mental asylums. A National Audit Office report stating that only 10% of prisoners were recorded as receiving treatment for mental illness, while as many as 70% may have some form of mental health need at any one time. Even the House of Commons’ Justice Committee report (2021-22) admits that many offenders are imprisoned simply because ‘community orders with mental health treatment requirements are unavailable in many areas.’

When asked what he would say to the Minister of Interior, who was attending a performance of the play, Blue Inmate Ali F. says, ‘We’d tell him, “Your Excellency! Lebanon has a mental illness that affects the sane!”’ Against all odds, Ali F. was released from Roumieh 3 years later, after spending 23 years in prison.

The Blue Inmates is proof that change that can be effected through art, through giving a voice to the voiceless, through portraying those seen as inherently dangerous as what they are: people needing help.

Natasha Anthea Lay is a writer, primarily for stage and screen. Natasha has been shortlisted twice for Playmarket NZ’s Playwrights b4 25 award and her short film Love is Real! (co-written with Calvin Sang) was part of the official selection of New Zealand International Film Festival 2022. Originally from Indonesia and New Zealand, Natasha now lives in the Southwest of England. She feels very fortunate to be making a living working in the arts, in arts administration and management.


The Blue Inmates screening + Live virtual discussion with Director Zeina Deccache and Clara El Akiki (The Roots Resistance)

Tuesday 8 November 2022, 18:20

Bertha DocHouse, London

To book, or just to learn more about The Blue Inmates, please see our EVENTS page

Reclaim The Frame x International is a new international collaboration between Birds’ Eye View (UK), Flying Broom Foundation (Turkey),  Women Make Waves (Taiwan) and Regards de femmes: festival international de film de femmes (Tunisia). With the shared mission to increase gender diversity and inclusion in cinema Reclaim the Frame x International aims to support culturally diverse women & non-binary filmmakers through the circulation of works, collaboration and a professional development programming. 

Reclaim The Frame x International is funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants, which are designed to support UK and overseas organisations to collaborate on international arts projects. The screening is also supported by Film Hub London, managed by Film London. Proud to be a partner of the BFI Film Audience Network, funded by the National Lottery.  


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