Thursday, October 7, 2010

Getting Angry at VIFF

Although Reginald Rose's play Twelve Angry Men (itself adapted from Rose's own 1954 teleplay for CBS Studio One) was revived successfully on Broadway in 2004, most of us are probably more familiar with Sidney Lumet's 1957 movie version, starring Henry Fonda as the famously dissenting juror. A classic liberal drama about prejudice and society's quickness to judge (the accused is Spanish-American), the play and film also function as sharp allegories of the intersection between class and masculinity in 1950s Cold War America.

Now imagine transporting all of that to a prison in Lebanon. The documentary 12 Angry Lebanese, which I saw yesterday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, chronicles director Zeina Daccache's year-long project working with 45 inmates in Lebanon's Roumieh Prison on a staging of Rose's play. A proponent of drama therapy as a way of transforming the lives of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals, Daccache is at once an inspiring human being and a terrifying theatre director, cajoling, haranguing and generally browbeating a motley collection of "murderers, drug dealers, and rapists" into putting on a production that is not merely competent but artistically rewarding for audiences and actors alike. In so doing, she manages not just to effect concrete social reform (in helping to jumpstart a stalled bill on early prison release), but also to restore a sense of purpose and self in her actor-inmates' lives, some of whom are serving life sentences or even sitting on death row.

But what is so amazing about the film record of this journey is that it gives equal weight to the social message and the artistic process, juxtaposing interviews with the prisoners' about their lives and the galvanizing effects of Daccache's production with fascinating scenes of the men rehearsing Rose's play and building additional elements for the larger evening's performance, of which the play will serve as the climax. To this end, the men work with Daccache in developing individual monologues about their lives and the crimes they committed, original music to accompany the production, dance and movement sequences, and even a bit of drag. Throughout, Daccache is solicitous and stern, funny and fierce, tender and terrifying in equal measure. She's not afraid to yell at her actors until they get their line readings right, nor even to fire one of them two weeks before they open because of his inability to commit to the project one hundred percent. And then there's the scene when she learns that Mustafa, who is to play Juror #5, has been released from prison--five days before they open! As much as she's elated for Mustafa, there's the little matter of finding a replacement. She calls on Capo, who up to this point has remained somewhat apart from the proceedings, only willing to take on a backstage role. That Daccache not only convinces Capo to agree to the part, and to memorizing his lines with the aid of his cellmate at night, but further solicits from him a bravura performance, is a testament to her uncompromising vision. As the VIFF program guide puts it, Daccache essentially is the star of her own documentary.

If I see nothing else of any note at this year's Festival, this film alone has made the experience truly memorable.


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