Over 15 months, Zeina Daccache, a theatre director, developed Lebanon’s first prison-based drama project so inmates at Roumieh Prison could present an adaptation of  Reginald Rose's courtroom play, Twelve Angry Men.

3.5
Drama provides an escape from jailhouse blues.

ARAB FILM FESTIVAL: Like Australian filmmaker Michael Davie’s superb documentary The Choir which paid tribute to the transforming power of singing in a South African prison, Zeina Daccache’s film sets out to show how theatre can have a similar effect on inmates in Lebanon.

12 Angry Lebanese isn’t as vibrant or moving as Davie’s film but it serves as an illuminating look at how the toughest of men can find some hope and meaning in their lives.

The doco chronicles the year-long efforts to stage an adaptation of Twelve Angry Men at Beirut’s Roumeih prison. Reginald Rose’s teleplay chronicling the deliberations of a jury deciding the fate of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father premiered in the US in 1954 and was turned into a feature film starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in 1957.

The Lebanese-born Daccache, an attractive woman in her 30s, directed the production for her drama therapy company Catharsis, working with 45 prisoners whittled down from the 200 who applied. She says she picked that play because it 'gives the inmates a chance to reverse roles, to be the jury, which is therapy in itself."

As the writer-director and 'star," she walked a delicate tightrope in determining how much time to devote to the men versus her own role. As it turns out, I suspect it was a big ego trip for her as she devotes copious screen time to the men expressing their admiration for her, verging on hero worship. Yet she reveals nothing of how it felt as a woman working alone with a group of men serving time for murder, rape and drug trafficking.

Even the title is a misnomer. The theatre group included men from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Tempers flare occasionally during rehearsals but most men acknowledged their guilt and seem resigned to their gaol terms. Unlike South Africa’s biggest prison, Leeuwkop, featured in The Choir, where drug-taking, rape and violence are rife, this film gives little sense about conditions at Roumieh, beyond some inmates’ complaints about the absence of any chances for reform or rehabilitation.

Technically, the doco is rather amateurish. Footage of the performance is interspersed, sometimes jarringly, with scenes from the rehearsals and interviews with the prisoners.

Many men relate familiar stories of unhappy childhoods and an absence of role models. Magdi, a murderer who’s been on death row for 15 years, laments, 'I only have one thing on my mind: When will I be executed? Today? Tomorrow?"

However, few express any thoughts for their victims. Chankar, the play’s narrator, counts the 18 years he’s spent in prison in days, hours, minutes and seconds. Convicted rapist Rateb Al Jibawi seems ambivalent about his eventual release, noting, 'Another prison awaits me, a prison without walls."

Daccache shows remarkable patience in coaching her charges, only once losing her temper when one guy forgets his lines. Performing the play – there were eight performances in early 2009 – seems to have had a cathartic effect on all the participants; if there were any dissenters, none is heard. 'Now I have hope in life; before I was dead and alive at the same time," declares one inmate.

At the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival, the film won the award for best Arab documentary and the People’s Choice award. A postscript notes two further positive outcomes: Catharsis received funding to continue its in-prison program, and the Ministry of Justice subsequently implemented an early-release law that was legislated in 2002.

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1 hour 25 min

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