The prison inside their minds

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The prison inside their minds

A review of Beyond the Walls

“Nothing is harsher than imprisonment. It is the cruellest form of torture.” – Former Palestinian prisoner

Since 1967, an estimated 760,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israeli jails, including a substantial number of women and children.[1] The experience of imprisonment has touched almost every Palestinian family and has become a rallying point for the Palestinian cause. Although such facts are well known, and the living conditions and daily sufferings of the prisoners documented by both Palestinian and international NGOs, what is often overlooked is the experience of those who have left the walls of prison behind for the “freedom” of the outside world.

Ahmed Adnan al-Ramahi’s Beyond the Walls attempts to fill this gap. A documentary combining animation and first-person accounts, it paints a moving portrait of life both inside and outside of Israeli prisons, and the psychological effects of incarceration on the Palestinian inmates. Originally commissioned by Al Jazeera, the film was screened on Monday at the Frontline Club as part of the London MENA Festival, and was accompanied by a panel-led discussion.

Through intimate interviews with seven former inmates, all imprisoned for at least 10 years, Beyond the Walls traces a path through the often-painful memories of these individuals to expose their underlying humanity. More than just a documentary about conditions inside the prisons themselves, the film highlights the pervasive and subtle ways in which a life behind bars can affect the person living it. The notion that once an inmate is “freed” they are no longer prisoners is thus turned on its head, as it is the lasting legacy of the prisons inside their minds that continues to shape their daily existence.

“Freedom is not something physical. It’s a philosophical idea,” says Anwar Yaseen, imprisoned for 17 years.

Most of the former prisoners interviewed were incarcerated in their late teens, and so spent many of their formative adult years behind bars. Not only did this mean that they completed much of their emotional and intellectual education within the prison walls, but also that they were less able to cope with the technological and societal changes of the outside world on their release.

“The world was upside down to the way it was before.”

It is this profound psychological shock that serves as the focus of Beyond the Walls; the walls in question are, after all, not merely barriers of the physical world but mirrored in the machinations of the prisoners’ internal world. The “crisis of freedom” that the prisoners speak of is thus not limited to the days, weeks and months spent behind bars but encapsulates the entirety of their lives, tempered as they are by the experience of incarceration.

Beyond the Walls … gives a voice to those individuals who have previously been silenced by barriers — both literal and metaphorical

Less attention is given to the details of each prisoner’s ordeal, which, as one audience member put it in the post-screening discussion, almost gives the erroneous impression that “Israeli prisons are the same as all prisons”. There is little mention of the practices of torture and interrogation used against Palestinian prisoners, or the fact that Palestinians in Israeli jails are treated according to military, not civilian, law. The true extent of the Palestinian prisoner crisis is only hazily sketched in Beyond the Walls; instead we are provided with an intimate portrait of the universal psychological effects of imprisonment. This is less an oversight than a result of the film’s particular approach — the tightly-wrought interviews of Beyond the Walls, while insightful, can thus only truly be appreciated within the wider context of Palestinian imprisonment.

Also unusual is the film’s use of animation to supplement the monologues of the prisoners. While the monochromatic scenes of barbed wire, watchtowers and prison cells are moving, they do little to enhance the narratives of the interviewees and only detract from the power of their testimonies. Similarly, the soundtrack of generic melancholy (Western) music could easily be transposed to a tear-jerking scene of any Hollywood blockbuster, and thus dampens rather than highlights the words of the prisoners.

Beyond the Walls importantly gives a voice to those individuals who have previously been silenced by barriers — both literal and metaphorical — but unfortunately doesn’t fully exploit the richness and power of first-person testimony. Taken in conjunction with the vast body of factual documentation on Palestinian prisoners, it highlights an often-overlooked aspect of incarceration: the lasting psychological scars inflicted on both individuals and the wider Palestinian population. As one member of the audience pointed out: “All Palestinians are prisoners, and not only in their minds.”

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review. A writer and journalist, she is currently completing an MSc in Middle East Politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has written about the Middle East and Arab world for numerous publications, including the Economist, the New Statesman, Oasis Magazine and the Telegraph.