The experience of being in jail is the subject of numerous works of literature, art, poetry and cinema. Films on life in prison often emphasise the will for survival despite torture, deprivation and hopelessness. Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting is hopeful too, but not in a conventional way.

Andoni’s film is both experimental documentary and therapy session. By getting Palestinian ex-prisoners to re-enact the time they have spent behind bars, Andoni creates moments of catharsis for his characters.

Ghost Hunting won the top prize in the documentary category at the Berlin Film Festival in 2017. The film is being streamed on Netflix alongside a host of Arab-language titles, some of which explore Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine.

Ghost Hunting’s context is specific as well as universal. The film is especially resonant in India, where custodial torture goes largely unreported and unpunished. At a time when activists and political dissidents are being jailed with alarming regularity, Ghost Hunting gives a spine-chilling sense of what goes on inside a prison, away from the scrutiny of the outside world.

Andoni starts out by building a prison set at a warehouse. He issues a casting call for ex-prisoners. The men who agree to be a part of the film revisit their painful memories of being jailed, interrogated or tortured.

The film alternates between observational moments of the rehearsals and staged sequences in which the actors play jailers and inmates. The porous line between documentary and fiction is forever being erased by the performers, who go far beyond role-playing in their portrayal of the skewed power dynamic in prisons.

The harrowing re-enactments lead to a kind of group therapy, a regaining of control over the past. If a prisoner is still on his feet after an interrogation, it means that he is free because he has control over his mind, one of the actors says.

One of the decorators points out a missing detail in the set: there is no cell with padded walls, he says. He should know: he was jailed along with his brother, and his sibling was put in a padded cell.

The man is overwhelmed by the memory. Later in the film, he speaks of his relief at having articulated his experience. Like the other actors, he brings his children to the set – one of the documentary’s most moving sequences.

Ghost Hunting (2017).