Film Reviews Zeina Daccache: Twelve Angry Lebanese

Zeina Daccache: Twelve Angry Lebanese

Twelve Angry Lebanese , a film by Zeina Daccache, shown on Aljazeera in its Witness series, is a powerful depiction of what true rehabilitation of prisoners is about.  

Correctional Services, despite the name change, are still prisons, places of incarceration, dumps for people who commit crimes. The services provided are very basic and do not promote human growth and development. There is no way in which human beings left to rot in prisons can be rehabilitated.

What the authorities who lock people up do not understand is that people who commit crimes usually come from circumstances that do not allow for normal integration into society. In one of the songs in the film, prisoners lament the fact that they did not have any one to teach them. They grew up not understanding their responsibility to themselves and to others. To learn this people need to interact with others, but prison expressly prohibits any form of meaningful interaction between inmates and instead provides a situation which reinforces anti-social tendencies. Far from being a place of rehabilitation, prison is a place of dehumanisation, continued dehumanisation – prisoners come from situations of abuse in which they were not valued and in which they imbibed negative norms and values and in prison they encounter similar, if not worse, circumstances. So the term correctional services is simply a romantic illusion and has nothing to do with the reality, the barbarous reality of imprisonment.  Prisons are simply cages and do not provide genuine means for correcting behaviour.  

Zeina Daccache’s film makes all of this clear and at the end of the film people begin to understand that simply locking people up cannot change them. Incarceration deprives them of the means to be human and cannot possibly lead to rehabilitation.

The problem with imprisonment lies in its focus on punishment not on rehabilitation. Our attitude towards people we call criminals is inhumane and everything that we provide for prisoners stems from this inhumanity and inculcates new attitudes of inhumanity in the people we lock up. In prison, people are deprived of everything that is necessary to the development of humane attitudes.

People are crowded into prisons, have no privacy, are restricted in their movement, are treated as though they do not have minds, cannot make rational choices and decisions, cannot learn, cannot be trusted and therefore have to follow strict routines and live in a situation in which there is no freedom at all. One prisoner in the film asks, ‘What about human rights?” Because we fear the prisoners, we cannot allow them any human rights or any freedom. Freedom includes the very important right to make mistakes. People who do not make mistakes do not learn. An incarcerated person is not allowed to make a mistake; mistakes are punished and regarded as an indication of incorrigibility. The fact is that once we put people in prison we do treat them as incorrigible. So it is nonsense to talk of rehabilitation.

Zeina Daccache, a theatre director, comes into a notorious prison with a project and involves men guilty of murder, rape, drug dealing, fraud etc. in the production of a play. She does not look at them as murderers, rapists etc. She treats them as human beings but does not ignore their crimes. Instead, she gives them the opportunity and means to analyse what they have done and the circumstances that have led to their crimes; in so doing she accords them the respect that has been lacking in their lives.

She does it via her project which is to involve them in a production of Twelve Angry Men. As jurors in the play they encounter a situation with which they are familiar and through which they can examine their own anti-social attitudes. The play requires them to interact with one another, learn about one another and develop relationships. At first their involvement in the project is, for them, simply a break from their deadening routine but as they become involved in the production, they learn to commit themselves to it and to each other. It is not an easy process and Zeina at times loses patience and even becomes angry, but as they learn how much she cares, how much she is committed, she becomes that missing person that they sing about in the song in which they lament the fact that there was no one to teach them. From her strong commitment to them and to the project, they learn commitment and in the end produce a play which is much, much more than the original play. It becomes Twelve Angry Lebanese, a vehicle through which they share their personal experiences before and during imprisonment and their fear of what will happen to them when they are released into a world with which they have completely lost touch. The play becomes epic theatre as prisoners communicate directly with their audience and reveal themselves as suffering human beings.

The film demonstrates powerfully that punishment does not fit crimes. And prisons are places of punishment. We need to provide ways, as Daccache has done, of restoring to people their self-respect and their respect for others.

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