Postdoctoral researcher Naomi Richman on her experience of directing the documentary short, Rites Undone.
‘We cannot put the shrine out of our sight’. These are not the words of a shaman or a priest. They are spoken by Filippo, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist who features in our forthcoming short documentary film, Rites Undone – a collaboration between the Hidden Persuaders project and the Derek Jarman Lab. Filippo is one of a growing number of mental health clinicians working amongst Nigerian victims of sex-trafficking in Italy. Those who are referred to him for treatment suffer a variety of symptoms that can be interpreted in various ways, from PTSD to depression or even psychosis. But these western terms and diagnoses, as Filippo goes on to explain, do not always map onto the kinds of mental experiences his clients report: what may look like delusion from one cultural perspective can constitute a socially accepted interpretation from another. Filippo and his colleagues therefore find themselves at the forefront of efforts to combine the insights of anthropology – a discipline concerned with how concepts and experiences are culturally determined – with the tools of psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. It is this interdisciplinary approach, known as ethno-psychiatry, that forms the subject of Rites Undone.
The importance of this approach should not be taken for granted. After all, the ‘psy’ sciences have not always been so open to integrating different cultural and religious constructions of mind and reality. Freud tended to pathologise religious belief, famously calling it ‘universal obsessive compulsive neurosis’. Religious thought and behaviour in adults were understood by some (but by no means all) early psychoanalysts as the internal remnants of child-like, magical way of seeing the world. This infantilisation of religious thinking was visible in Victorian evolutionary thought, but it also drew strength from a colonialist mindset that saw ‘primitive’ peoples as backwards, simplistic, and several steps behind the ‘European mind’ on the evolutionary ladder. It was an attitude that often accompanied, or actively guided the cruel policies of the psychiatric hospitals administered by colonial regimes across the African continent and elsewhere, providing poor care and treating mentally unwell patients, and religious and political dissidents as though they were equally disturbed.
Of course, things have come a long way since then. But the importance of attending to different cultural framings of reality, and of mind, continues to present a unique set of challenges for the modern clinician. Rites Undone explores these challenges, guided by Filippo, his colleague Maria Chiara, and their Nigerian-born cultural mediator, Deborah – all of whom work at Centro Penc, the Center of Ethnopsychology in Palermo. The film is shot in Sicily and in Asti, a small town in northern Italy that serves as the site of a shelter for those who have escaped from sex-traffickers. It is in Asti where we learn that the coercive mechanisms used by the traffickers to control their victims are as much psychological, and spiritual, as they are physical. Traffickers exploit the African religious and cultural systems that hold beliefs in ‘juju’, or native medicine as sacred, to enforce a monopoly of power over those forced into sex work. By taking them to swear an oath of loyalty at a local shrine, the traffickers use (and abuse) an ancient and deeply ingrained spiritual worldview to their advantage. Fear of the consequences of breaking that oath emerge as a powerful tool of manipulation. And so, the shrine remains in sight – not only for those who find themselves reluctant sex workers in a foreign land, but also for those like Filippo, who seek to offer them mental health support.
Rites Undone (29 mins) is directed by Naomi Richman (Hidden Persuaders) and produced by Eddie Bolger & Bartek Dziadosz (the Derek Jarman Lab). It will soon be made freely available for viewing on the website, ritesundonefilm.com, and on the Hidden Persuaders website.
 Freud, S. (1907) Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 9, pp. 115–128). London: Hogarth. (pp.126-127)