Islamic exorcism or western medication? Djinn possession or mental health issues? Award winning documentary Descending with Angels explores Islamic and western approaches to treating Danish Muslims who believe they are possessed by djinn, while the fictional Makr looks at the consequences of spiritual fraud.
by Sarah Khurshid
Descending with Angels. is a nuanced and research-based film which won ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at the 2013 Berlin Independent Film festival. It was produced by award-winning Danish filmmaker Christian Suhr. As an anthropologist and accomplished filmmaker, Suhr’s previous research had revolved around spirits, illness, the demonic, the divine and the unseen.
Although djinn are mentioned twenty-nine times in the Quran, contemporary realism in the Muslim community has rather sensationalised these unseen entities. Exploring the influence of some mischievous djinn within a western context where Islamic exorcism is a decidedly foreign concept, is undoubtedly a very difficult task to accomplish. However, Suhr’s documentary begins from the premise that western and Islamic-based treatments are both healing techniques making Descending with Angels a trailblazer documentary that confidently and non-judgmentally delineates the unseen and seen in one realm.
To create Descending with Angels, Suhr spent several years following Muslim mental health patients and researching the dual impacts of Islamic exorcism and western medication on treating these patients. Suhr spends time with psychiatrists and in mosques and Islamic youth centres. He attends lectures and interviews those providing care from both the Islamic and western perspectives with each able to demonstrate and rationalise the effectiveness of their treatment. In the process, the film highlights how cultural and religious beliefs can affect receptiveness to various other healing techniques. For budding anthropologists, Suhr also published a film monograph that he advised viewers to read after watching his unique and sometimes shocking film.
The film follows several storylines but Danish-Palestinian, Aziz, takes centre stage. Aziz believes he is possessed by a djinn who compelled him to commit uncharacteristic and violent acts in public spaces. Aziz explains to his psychiatrist that he has had Islamic exorcisms performed on him while his psychiatrist prescribes psychotropic medication. Aziz’s story embodies the main purpose of Descending with Angels as Aziz recounts his healing journey and the impact of both Islamic and western healing techniques.
Another main focus is that of the working life of Shaikh Abu Bilal, a Quranic healer who visits the houses of those who believe they may be possessed by djinn. He first performs assessments that often do not lead to any further treatment, but in serious cases performs Islamic exorcisms to drive djinn out of the possessed human vessel. The film’s coverage of the exorcisms is graphic and disturbing yet educational, responsible and empathetic.
Although the documentary explores the morbid and harrowing theme of possession, the film is a fascinating and, for me, a fulfilling watch. I had no prior knowledge of the scope of Islamic and western healing and have previously been hesitant to delve into djinn and Islamic exorcisms. Suhr’s open-minded and sensible depiction of possession spurred me to do further research and I now know that successful Quranic healers must follow Islam, be righteous and distinguish specific surahs for specific illnesses.
Tackling an extremely sensitive topic in such an understanding way makes Descending with Angels an onscreen trailblazer that sympathetically analyses the nature of djinn possession, and the potential of healing techniques that can support Muslim patients.
After being educated on the real life of a Quranic healer in Descending with Angels, watching the fictional short film, Makr, had a much greater impact. Makr (Deception) from 2019, is a chilling tale about a ‘fake’ exorcist and the consequences of his exploitation of those in spiritual distress.. This film was reviewed previously on the Alchemiya Journal (including a really interesting interview about the film with its Director, Hana Kazim). The combination of fiction and non-fiction these two films provide may be sometimes disturbing, but they are educational and thought provoking too.