The great escape


Harry van Versendaal

Most people tend to forget that prisons are designed to rehabilitate, not punish. Not Zeina Daccache.

In 2008, this popular comedian and activist from Lebanon approached the authorities at Roumieh Prison, the Mediterranean country’s biggest and most notorious jail, to pitch a rather unconventional project: Staging a play starring inmates as part of a yearlong drama therapy session.

To make matters a bit more complicated, the work proposed grappled with the failures of the criminal justice system. Prison staff, naturally, raised an eyebrow.

“The project was refused twice. It took a year of refusals and trials and finally they agreed,” Daccache told Kathimerini English Edition a few days before a film about the whole experience is to be screened as part of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

The play was an Arabic adaptation of “12 Angry Men” by the late American playwright Reginald Rose, which was adapted for the screen in 1957 by Sidney Lumet in a movie starring Henry Fonda. The play tells the story of a 12-member jury deciding the fate of a young boy who is charged with murdering his father. While exposing the holes in the modern penal system, the story also serves as a metaphor for society at large.

“When I first saw the film I was so taken by its setting, the great portraying of how human beings judge each other, and how hard it is for these men, and all mankind, to come up with a unanimous decision when needed,” said Deccache, who has lived in Europe as well as the United States while studying drama therapy and clinical psychology.

Lebanon has still not abolished capital punishment, although no executions have been carried out since 2004. The country’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and neglected. A report last year by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights condemned the management of the country’s jails, finding that penitentiary institutions are packed to twice their capacity and severely neglected. Roumieh Prison accommodates 3,500 inmates despite a capacity for only 1,500. Many prisoners have to wait years for their trial.

“The politicians are like these 12 men, unable to forget their own perceptions of things and not willing to change easily,” the director said.

Hundreds of convicts applied for a part in the play, but the final selection was eventually narrowed down to 45 people. Daccache found herself working with drug dealers, rapists and convicted murderers — some of them on death row. At the beginning she came up against skepticism on the part of the inmates; after all she was a woman in a world of macho, underclass masculinities. But what followed had an optimistic, Hollywoodesque touch.

“Having inmates playing the role of the person who put them behind bars was very therapeutic for these men,” Daccache said, describing how the experience improved the inmates’ relationships with their families and how it helped them understand reality on the other side of the world — “and cope with it.”

But it was more than escapism, as the play also had an impact on the men in suits and uniforms.

“They all gave a standing ovation,” Daccache said of the government officials and prison staff that watched the performance.

But change did not stop there, as the event sparked a “massive interest in reforming prisons.” Following the staging of the play in February and March 2009, the Lebanese government went on to sign the early release law 463/2002, reducing prison time for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Human rights activists, Daccache said, are still pushing for the death penalty to be scrapped. A military tribunal last year sentenced two Lebanese men to death for providing Israel’s intelligence services with information about Hizbullah. The two states remain technically at war, and convicted spies face life in prison with hard labor or capital punishment.

With help from the Italian embassy in Beirut, Daccache was able to make a documentary out of the project that was completed in 2009. “Twelve Angry Lebanese,” which is showing this week in the “Middle East” section of the TDF, feels like reading a story inside a story and it sends more or less the same strong message — only this time in a stronger medium.

“The documentary can travel much more than the play. Being inmates they can’t leave prison but the film can,” Daccache said.

The movie won first prize for best documentary and the people’s choice award at the Dubai International Film Festival 2009. Last year, it received the top audience award at DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival, in Damascus, Syria.

But Daccache has not left the prison. For the past four years she has been working on a follow-up show to be performed in May and June this year. It will be called “The Hanged Man.”

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