By using filmmaking not just for entertainment, but also to raise crucial awareness, QF alumnus Zaki Hussain is fighting a common stigma by documenting his family’s struggles with mental illness
Growing up in a small household in Singapore, with his single mother and two sisters, Zaki Hussain witnessed his older sister’s mental health issues first-hand. Suffering from schizophrenia, she would often hallucinate or hear voices in her head—something a young Hussain didn’t truly understand.
“Not a lot of people have the experience of living with someone who has mental illness and understanding how it impacts the family dynamic in a household,” said Hussain, adding how the social stigma associated with mental health made it difficult for him to talk about his family’s experiences.
“It’s very hard to discuss mental health, even with people close to us, and to get support from the outside with that kind of stigma.”
For a long time, Hussain felt helpless at not being able to do anything about his sister’s health, but after he moved to Qatar to study filmmaking at Northwestern University in Qatar, he realized that the least he could do was fight negative perceptions associated with mental health by making a film about his family’s experiences.
“As a filmmaker or anyone who pursues any sort of art, it’s important to write about, shoot, or draw things that mean a lot to you,” said Hussain, explaining why he decided to make a film based on his experiences. “We have the means of reaching a wider audience. We have a lot of power to form and encourage discussions about mental illness or any other stigmatized topics.”
Not just entertainment
Hussain’s decision to make a film about his sister’s story was inspired by what he saw as the need to highlight not only a person dealing with schizophrenia, but also a single mother struggling to take care of her.
Before making the film, Hussain asked permission from his mother and sister, who were hesitant, but agreed. He received a grant from Studio 20Q, a student organization at Qatar Foundation partner university NU-Q that provides funding and mentorship for student films, and produced a 10-minute fiction film inspired by his family’s real-life experiences.
As filmmakers, we have the means of reaching a wider audience. We have a lot of power to form and encourage discussions about mental illness or any other stigmatized topics.
Titled Terima Kasih—"Thank you” in Malay—the film might be short but required long and strenuous hours of work due to the nature of the topic it was covering.
Before developing the script, Hussain wanted to ensure the writers of the film understood what having a person with schizophrenia in the family really entails, so he scheduled Skype interviews between the film crew and his mother.
“It was tough for my mother to share her experiences, because she had to discuss it with people she didn’t know,” explains Hussain. “But the important factor in making her do it was that it came from the need to raise awareness, and not just for the sake of entertainment.”
Another challenge in producing the film was to find actors who could capture the gravity of dealing with mental health issues.
Hussain and his team interviewed people in Al Khor, Qatar’s northernmost town, where many Singaporean families live, and found a Malay-speaking woman to play his mother. The role of Hussain’s sister was portrayed by a student from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.
After 8 months of production, the film was first screened at the Studio 20Q Premiere in April 2018. It received the Best Creative Writing accolade at NU-Q’s annual student awards and third prize at the university’s creative media festival.
The power of storytelling
Hussain created several short films during his time as a student, including 9965, a satirical comedy about a wheelchair-bound person who literally crawls to achieve his goals in life.
When the film was screened at Ajyal Film Festival in Doha, a Qatari mother approached Hussain to talk about how hilarious she found the movie—something that came as a surprise to Hussain, as he thought the film would only appeal to a younger generation.
“I understood then that the film has a wider audience,” he said. “She [the Qatari mother] was not from my group of people, and it opened my eyes about how far a film can reach out to different kinds of people.”
We are not specialists in this area, but we have stories. There are doctors who are willing to help or there are other solutions, but people don’t reach out to them because it’s stigmatized.
Hussain has screened Terima Kasih at various occasions in Qatar and Singapore, and has received a lot of positive reaction, particularly from people suffering from mental illness.
“More people told me about their experiences than those who commented on the film,” said Hussain. “It opened up a channel for people to talk about their experiences, as it showed that we are not alone and there is a group of people facing similar challenges. After the film, the more I talk about schizophrenia, the more I understand it.
“We are not specialists in this area, but we have stories. There are doctors who are willing to help or there are other solutions, but people don’t reach out to them because it’s stigmatized. As media-makers, we can encourage discussion and ultimately make people reach out to the right people for help.”
Hussain is now a production assistant at Lucas Film Singapore and has worked on visual effects for some global blockbuster films, including Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And the soft skills he picked up during his time at university, particularly humility and the ability to deal with diverse group of people, are key to his success at work.
“As a student, I did three films with three different producers from different backgrounds, and now it helps me to be adaptable in the workplace,” said Hussain. “At NU-Q, we also learn humility, which helps in absorbing the stories and trying to tell as best version of the story as possible.”
Hussain’s younger sister, Munawarah Hussain, is also passionate about filmmaking and is currently a student at NU-Q majoring in communications.
Hussain plans to continue working in the film industry for now, but eventually wants to enter academia and teach storytelling to future filmmakers.