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‘Tallahassee’ Tackles Mental Health Stigma in Arab-American Communities

October 17, 2021
“The energy on set was indescribably magical — being surrounded by so many Arab women artists felt like a dream come true.”

When Mira gets into her sister’s car to attend their grandmother’s 90th birthday party in Brooklyn, she has no idea that no one in her family knows where she had been. In a moment of panic, her mother and sister had told everyone that she was in Tallahassee, Florida, to hide a painful truth: a spell in a psychiatric facility after an accidental overdose.

Directed by Lebanese-American filmmaker Darine Hotait and written by Palestinian-American writer and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan – who also stars as Mira – the short film Talahassee makes its MENA premier this week at the Gouna Film Festival. The work provides viewers with a brief glimpse into the life of a Palestinian-American family and a young woman’s silent struggle in the face of stigma.

Unable to tell the truth of her trauma and unwilling to weave lies about a city she had never even visited, Mira takes refuge in the company of the young son of a cousin; the only person at the party who neither knew nor cared where she had been.

Tallahassee, which was filmed in New York City shortly before the first COVID-19 lockdown, speaks subtly of the reality of Arab life in the United States. Even with its short duration, the film was able to illustrate the apparently contradictory coexistence of love and judgement in Mira’s mother and sister’s decision to hide the truth from the rest of the family.

Mira takes Rakkan to buy glue for his school project in Darine Hotait’s ‘Talahassee’.

Mental health as a theme in Arab art has been a matter of controversy for years. With a history of representation that vilified, ridiculed, or pathologized mental illness, Arab writers and filmmakers have over the past several years begun to break the cycle with more accurate, informative, empathetic, and authentic representations.

Despite Tallahassee’s dedication to showing mental illness and the stigma around it in a more authentic light, there was a definite lack of detail on Mira’s experience and condition. In fact, without reading the film’s synopsis, a viewer may never know that she had been through an accidental overdose nor that the hospital she had been in was a psychiatric facility; it was never explicitly mentioned.

And while this does leave the viewer wondering, there was a certain authenticity to the reliance on the implicit. A common cultural response to mental illness can be denial and avoidance, which could have made explicit mention of Mira’s situation appear forced and unnatural.

Hotait also made the best of the 22 minutes in her use of poignant symbolism, from the inland Florida city of Tallahassee itself – representing Mira’s struggle to reintegrate into her old life with her family – to the unforgettable and silent scene showing Mira trying and failing to remove the hospital bracelet exposing the truth of her absence.

Malek Holloway as Rakkan in Darine Hotait’s ‘Tallahassee’.

Another key symbol in the short film was Rakkan, the child Mira befriends to avoid the company of the adults at the party. Often used as tools to convey wisdom, child characters are often given lines unrealistic for their age. Here, however, Hotait and Alyan excel, not asking the character to do or say anything more than a child would in reality. The simplicity of Mira’s connection with Rakkan is as heartwarming as it is authentic.

The cast and crew, which is primarily formed of women filmmakers, boasts a number of growing artists from across the region whose cooperation on Tallahassee created an opportunity for new discussion around the topic of mental health, which remains a taboo among many in Arab culture.

“Shooting a 20 minute short within three days seemed like an impossible feat — but we made it happen!” says first assistant director Hayat Aljowaily. “The energy on set was indescribably magical — being surrounded by so many Arab women artists felt like a dream come true.”

Tallahassee had its world premiere at the Blackstar Film Festival in August in Pennsylvania, and won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Mizna Film Festival in Minnesota, as well as being nominated for Best Short Film at the Woodstock Film Festival in New York.

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