When I went to watch 12 Angry Lebanese – The Documentary on Sunday, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d read bits and pieces about the play, a version of the 1950s American play and film 12 Angry Men, and knew it vaguely involved inmates at Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.
The documentary opens with shots of the impossibly depressing prison on the hills above Beirut. I mean no one expects a prison to look cheerful, especially amidst the bleak concrete jungle our country is slowly turning into. But Roumieh is a whole new world of misery. Certainly many who reside amongst its crumbling walls deserve to be there. Rapists, murderers and thieves. But even the evil within our society deserve humane conditions. Roumieh, originally intended to house 1000 convicts is currently buckling under the weight of its 7000.
Now, in Lebanon, we’re not big on rehabilitation. Amnesia is the rule. One day it’s ignoring the plight of the 17000 people who went missing during the civil war. The next it’s turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands who self-medicate their post-traumatic stress with Xanax, vodka and their car horns. That cousin who ended up in jail? Don’t talk about him and he doesn’t exist anymore. Magic.
Sweeping things under the rug is all we do collectively. But the more you sweep, the more uneven the surface of the rug. And that’s what we’re left with. A jagged collective memory with thousands of walking ghosts, all ignoring each other’s presence. It’s the kind of conclusion that can lead to despair. Then I saw this film.
Zeina Dacccache should be celebrated for her genius and madness in equal measure. After studying drama therapy in the US, she took it upon herself to wander into a maximum security prison in one of the most machismo-laden countries in the world to poke around in the psyches of rapists and murderers for 15 months.
The choice of play is poignant. The original 12 Angry Men explores techniques of consensus-building and the difficulties that the process involves, among a group of male jurors whose range of personalities create tension and conflict. Twelve bickering men entrusted with deciding the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder. The poster for the 1957 film read: Life is in their hands, Death is on their minds. Nothing could be truer in the context of this prison.
At the outset, the group looks hopeless. Sitting around haphazardly, they don’t let each other finish their sentences. Their anger is palpable. The anger of 7000 inmates in a country of angry people. Tempers flare and you can’t quite imagine how this ramshackle group would stand in a straight line, let alone put on a play in front of an audience.
However, as the film progresses, a gradual cohesion surfaces. The men start caring about each other. They start caring about the success of their performances. They talk about Zeina with a sense of awe, and without the slightest indication of objectification, something many men on the outside would undoubtedly be guilty of.
Among the inmates turned actors are some foreigners. A Nigerian, a Bangladeshi, an Egyptian, serving sentences far away from home yet proud of their involvement in an ambitious undertaking. A multi-confessional and multi-racial group of men working under the leadership of a strong woman? It’s an inspiring sight, rendered melancholic by the nagging thought that it would probably never happen outside the walls of this prison in our largely bigoted and sexist Lebanon.
The play itself is a resounding success, presented to an audience of ministers and security forces as well as family. It’s a surreal sight. Criminals in suits acting unhindered by restraints or barriers, to an audience. I challenge you not to shed a tear at some point during this documentary. The result is so powerful, we learn, that after the play action was taken by the authorities to implement laws on early release for good behaviour.
The film, in the most unlikely of places, finds qualities that are sadly missing in our everyday lives as Lebanese. Determination, will and positivity in the pursuit of catharsis and rehabilitation. It is both beautiful and profoundly moving to watch. You find yourself empathizing with people who have committed unspeakable crimes. Rooting for them. Hoping they don’t falter. You see their human side. You are happy to see that even though they are locked up, they have experienced a freedom. A freedom of thought and achievement. Some are shy and introverted, others breakdown whilst they speak of the things they’ve done. But none of them wants to be seen as a victim, they acknowledge their wrongdoing. They want to understand the circumstances that lead them to do the things they did. They want to enjoy the freedom that working on something worthwhile has given them. They want to make their families proud now, through their dedication and work. In a deeply wounded country busy frenetically erasing its past with bulldozers and cement; few things could be more inspiring.
Twelve Angry Lebanese is playing at Metropolis Cinema – Sofil until September 14th. Watch it.