Netflix docuseries enters the "Dark Minds" of the Arab world

Produced by Al-Sharq TV and SRMG, the first-of-its-kind Arabic documentary series explores the opaque world of serial killers in the Middle East

Netflix docuseries enters the "Dark Minds" of the Arab world

Produced by Al-Sharq TV and SRMG, the Arabic documentary seven-part series Dark Minds recently premiered on Netflix Middle East and North Africa. A first-of-its-kind in the Arab world, it delves into shocking true stories of crimes that have shaken both large and small Arab cities.

The documentary aims to understand—not justify—the motives of the perpetrators and their complex psychological structures, all while maintaining a respectful focus on the voices of the victims and their families. It carefully avoids the common cinematic pitfall of depicting these criminals as heroes.

While Netflix is awash with crime documentaries and films that glorify violence, critics ask: Does the Arab world need to be churning out imitation works of this nature? Are we inadvertently promoting crime, imitating American sensationalism, or merely driven by profit and controversy?

Undoubtedly, this type of documentary sheds light on the darkest corners of the human soul—not only of the perpetrators but also of the families and communities from which such psychopaths emerged, prompting introspection on some parenting practices. As one psychiatrist highlighted in the film, there is always a broken childhood behind every criminal. Understanding how such dynamics can negatively impact a child can help us learn from bad parental and societal practices.

Serial killers

Serial killers are not commonly discussed in the Arab world, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Because of the proliferation of American serial killer movies and documentaries, Arabs tend to see serial killers as a uniquely American phenomenon. As such, the Arab film industry has not embraced this cinematic genre—particularly serial killer films—to the same extent. Psychology is not a prominent field of study in the Arab world, which could explain society's lack of awareness on the issue.

This is exactly what makes Dark Minds stand out. Across its seven episodes, Dark Minds weaves together stories from six Arab countries—Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco. The narrative journeys back to the 1980s, revisiting the chilling tale of a child murderer in Tunisia's tranquil city of Nabeul. From there, it navigates through the decades, presenting stories of serial killers from Jordan in the 1990s and Beirut, Giza, and Kirkuk in the new millennium.

This non-linear chronology underscores the profound impact of shifting political, economic, and social landscapes on Arab societies in the 21st century, giving rise to a new breed of criminals. For instance, the tumultuous aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq and the proliferation of terrorist attacks against civilians warped the thinking of Dr. Louay Al-Tai—a doctor who believed that murdering survivors of terrorist operations constituted a twisted form of "jihad" against the "American enemy".

In its final chapter, Dark Minds examines the heinous crimes of Gaddafi Farraj, infamously known as the "Butcher of Giza". While the case has garnered widespread attention, including a TV series adaptation, Dark Minds delves deeper, exposing the economic and social fault lines that have ravaged Egypt in recent years. Through intimate interviews with victims' families and archival footage, the documentary masterfully reveals the societal pressures that enabled Farraj's crimes, including his performative piety and moral posturing, which gave him the veneer of respectability.

A criminological analysis

In her book Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, translated by Ahmed Youssef, Nicole Rafter discusses the two contradictory concepts of criminology theory. "The first concept suggests that the criminal is an inherently abnormal and deformed person, a criminal by nature, while the second concept asserts that the criminals are shaped by society and upbringing. This concept attributes criminal tendencies to experiences the criminal has gone through in their life or, in other words, the perpetrator of a crime is merely a victim of a previous crime."

Dark Minds explores both possibilities. From the first episode, featuring the rapist and murderer of children in Nabeul, Tunisia, the neighbours openly discuss the social stigma that marked the killer's life from childhood. Born out of an illegitimate relationship, he was perpetually shamed by the town even into adulthood. His stepfather mistreated him and eventually sent him to a juvenile reformatory. Although there is no detailed account of what he encountered there as a teenager, his motives for lusting after children and then brutally killing them may suggest that he himself was subjected to abuse.

The documentary shows several instances of these criminals' confessions or candid conversations with investigators. The Tanlian brothers from Beirut, for example, spoke at length and in detail about their motives for killing innocent people, attempting to justify their actions. In all instances of confession, the criminals never appeared confused or remorseful; instead, they remained resolute in their positions, as if ready to kill again without hesitation if released.

The thread connecting these criminals—despite their temporal, spatial, and social differences—is a psychopathic tendency that is hostile to others. Psychiatric explanations attempt to understand the killer's mindset, yet the true motives remain elusive and dark—much like the essence of evil itself.

Psychopathy affects both the rich and the poor, the pampered child as well as the abandoned one. Its fundamental characteristic is the inability to feel any empathy for the pain of others, often compounded, as shown in the documentary, by a perverse enjoyment in crushing the weak—perhaps an attempt to obliterate the fragility within their own souls.

Arab environments

Dark Minds repeatedly addresses the question of punishment, asking whether or not it is deserved and serves as a sufficient deterrent. The abhorrent justice system in some Arab countries has also contributed to the proliferation of murders, as seen in the case of the Iraqi doctor. Not only did he evade punishment, but he still remains at large, meaning that he could possibly be committing new crimes even as we speak.

Another question the documentary explores is whether the death penalty actually deters psychopaths from committing crimes. While the families of the victims may wish for the death penalty for those who murdered their loved ones, they acknowledge—as one victim's mother states—that it would not bring her child back.

Moreover, the death penalty has never stopped criminals from committing crimes. For example, in Egypt, where capital punishment is still practised, it did not prevent the Giza Butcher from committing his crimes. Similarly, crime and murder did not stop in Tunisia after a criminal was executed there (the last state execution to take place in the country).

Clearly, there is more to be done. Justice systems and methods of upbringing need to be reevaluated. A deeper probe into society’s deeply held beliefs and ideas is necessary, with a critical eye on its occasional inhumanity and marginalisation and exclusion of certain classes. Ultimately, Dark Minds begs the question: Is there a way to summon light to such dark minds?

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