“12 Angry Lebanese”: interview with Zeina Daccache

What kind of a girl saunters in to a maximum security prison and starts telling the inmates what to do? One with a lot of guts—and training.

Originally published in JO.

IN 2008, Zeina Daccache made headlines by doing the impossible: she got access to one of Lebanon’s toughest men’s prisons and staged a play there, starring the inmates. After months of work, she brought the great and good of Beirut society, from the Prosecutor General to the Minister of Interior, to sit in a makeshift theater and watch a group of convicted murderers, rapists and drug dealers act out a parable about the failure of criminal justice.

The play was Daccache and the inmates’ own adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose. The original is an American classic in which a jury debates the fate of a young man accused of murder. Eleven men agree on a guilty verdict, but one dissents; by analyzing the evidence he slowly wins the others over. Adapted to a Lebanese environment, the drama cuts back and forth between the arguments of the fictional jury and real-life stories told by the prison inmates.

One prisoner, the diminutive Youssef Chankar, plays a narrator, whose comments help bridge the different sections of the play. In his opening monologue he points out that, although called 12 Angry Lebanese, the cast also includes a Bangladeshi, a Palestinian, a Nigerian and a Syrian.

“We all came to Lebanon to be angry,” he says.

The production generated a huge amount of attention, and was followed up in 2009 with the release of a documentary film, “12 Angry Lebanese.” The movie tells the story behind the production, and examines the effects of this “drama therapy” on the 45 inmates involved, and the enclosed world of prison society itself. At the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival it won both the People’s Choice award and the Muhr award for best Arab documentary. It screened in Amman at the end of January.

So how exactly did Daccache manage to walk into a prison and get nearly 50 mostly violent offenders to do something requiring so much dedication and cooperation?

In one surprising scene in the film, viewers get to see Daccache taking her actors to task quite harshly.

“All I ever hear is ‘I want,’ or ‘I need,’” she says. “This is the language of children.” Shockingly, there’s no riot. The inmates bow their heads?one even agrees. What the audience may not quite appreciate is that such minor miracles represent years of work.

Daccache has lived in Paris, Italy and the United States, as well as Lebanon. She speaks four languages, and stars as the clownish character Iso in the popular Lebanese political satire show “Bassmat Watan.” In 2000 she studied clowning with Phillippe Gaulier, a French physical theater guru in London. Shortly thereafter she assisted in a drama therapy project in an Italian prison. The following six years were spent working in rehab centers, until 2007, when she studied drama therapy at Kansas State University; she’s also earned an MA in Clinical Psychology.

Of course none of this would have been much use without a sense of humor.

“You need to be confident, a gentleman,” she says at another point in the film, gesturing in an exaggerated fashion as she teaches Bangladeshi inmate Hussein Al Mawla how to walk without slouching. “Haven’t you seen those people who are like: ‘How are you darling, so good to see you,’” she continues, prancing around the room and playfully shaking the hands of the inmates. “Trust me, these people are everywhere in Beirut.”

It’s one of the more light-hearted scenes, but perhaps also one of the more telling. What exactly made Daccache abandon a world of coffee-shop boulevards for Roumieh prison, or the Beirut in-set for society’s outcasts?

“I don’t believe in art for art’s sake,” says the sprightly young director, dismissing the question as a distraction. “Why do you write, or why does a singer sing? I work with people like this because it’s right for me and because I think it’s important.”

It’s only when pressed that Daccache reveals the insight that seems to drive the work behind the 12 Angry Lebanese project, and Catharsis, the drama-therapy company she runs.

“People like this are naked,” she explains. “We know their sin, we know what they have done, and they can’t hide?they’ve been caught. But [for us] on the outside, our wrongs are hidden and we can fake so many things.”

Neither the play nor the documentary is arguing the rapists and murderers in Roumieh are innocent, or that they should not be held to account. What these works question is the presumed innocence of those outside the prison walls, and their readiness to sit in judgment on those within.

The more explicit aim of the documentary, however, was to chart and champion the effects of drama therapy on the inmates involved. Perhaps the most convincing case for a therapeutic effect is Majdi Sirjani, a murderer sentenced to death in a country where the death penalty, although not implemented, remains on the statute books. Sirjani describes his “psychological crisis,” and his overwhelming and constant preoccupation with death, but by the end of the film his features seem somehow lighter, his eyes less hollow. Another inmate, called simply “Haweelo,” who was convicted of drug dealing, learned to read and write for the play with the help of his cellmates.

The residents of Roumieh aren’t much given to artifice (or else they’re very good at it) but their reflections on prison life and the drama project don’t seem scripted.

12 Angry Lebanese shows that in some ways prison life is a microcosm of the world outside.

“Inside I’m a servant, and outside I’m a servant,” says Al Mawla, the Bangladeshi inmate.

“You’ll find exactly the same prejudices inside a prison as outside,” explains Daccache—mentioning how at first, some of the inmates at first didn’t like taking direction from a woman. “They call me Abu Ali,” she recounts. In the documentary itself, she quips that she “can never procreate with such a nickname.”

Then there’s Chankar, the play’s narrator, who was given a life sentence for murder. In Lebanon a life sentence means just what its name implies—it’s of indeterminate length. With nothing to look forward to, Chankar can only look back. He counts up the 18 years he’s spent in prison in days, hours, minutes and seconds.

Rateb Al Jibawi, imprisoned for rape, will be released one day—but he regards the prospect of freedom with ambivalence. “Another prison awaits me,” he tells audience, “a prison without walls.” He fears the censure of the society, the life of a pariah in the crowd.

Technically, “12 Angry Lebanese” is neither filmed, edited or scripted particularly well. Footage of the play is incorporated rather awkwardly into scenes from the rehearsals, and interviews with the prisoners’ in which they describe the process. More background—for example, on how Daccache found herself at Roumieh, or the struggle to launch the project in the first place—might have helped the narrative along.

But such criticisms are very minor. In fact, it’s in large part by avoiding the structure of a “journey story,” and instead focusing on what the inmates have to say for themselves, that makes the documentary at once so compelling and so different.

John Lillywhite is an Oxford History graduate with a law diploma he’s determined to never use, a Walmart laptop that remains the bane of his life, and a tongue so irreverent its best kept closed.

He has experience in Film, Talent, New Media and Book Publishing, and currently works as Art’s Editor for JO. John is a ‘culture vulture’ who’s loves creative things and creative people.

You can contact John by sending him an E-mail at john[at]jo[dot]jo. You can also add him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

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