As part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s extensive program this year, there was a strand that focused on the Middle East, a place rife with underground work. While some of these films are certainly getting a bit of play at some of the larger Middle East fests, making and exhibiting independent documentary in the Arab world is a challenge in several distinct ways.

Even with the development of new film funds and the emergence of alternative avenues for exhibition, oftentimes filmmakers from the region have to contend with extensive political and social censorship. The success of the outcome of certain projects is up for debate, for quite a few pieces are unpolished, filled with the kind of “gaffes” of which most Western filmmakers (and audiences) are highly critical. We must also remember, however, that a lot of these important and timely stories never get the appropriate professional support needed to enhance their market-readiness. Nonetheless, it is important that these films get some play outside their own region at high-profile festivals with expansive programming, such as Sheffield.

The middle East Focus strand at Doc/Fest showcased ten films from Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iran and Tunisia. There were two feature-length films that were particularly striking, but for entirely different reasons. While Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary is exceedingly well produced and executed, Mohammad Ali Atassi’s Waiting for Abu Zayd is not.

In fact, at its conclusion, Atassi’s film seems to dwindle into what amounts to a philosophical argument between the journalist and his subject; Atassi’s frustrated offcamera voice expresses bewilderment to Zayd about the intellectual’s refusal to return to his native Egypt after 13 years of exile. It’s an unintentionally morbid conclusion to what is in effect the only extensive documentation of Zayd’s life. The two films have some palpable reverberations with one another since both say a lot about the constant struggle to create contemporary meaning out of the ancient Qur’anic traditions of Islam, and the complex social mores (and severe social restrictions) of being a good and faithful Muslim. In both cases, the films focus on these principles through their interaction with state “criminals,” society’s exiles.

«a passionate interplay between notions of innocence and guilt unravels»

Theatre director, Zeina Daccache sets up Lebanon’s first prison-based drama project in Roumieh Prison, one of the country’s most overcrowded penitentiaries. The facility, built for 1500 inmates, holds almost 4000. Over the course of a year and half, she molds a group of 45 actors plucked from the prison population and stages an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay from 1957, 12 Angry Men. The story takes place in the confines of a deliberation room with 12 jurors deciding the case of a boy who is being charged for murdering his father. There is one man who decides to buck the unanimous vote of “guilty” and a passionate interplay between notions of innocence and guilt unravels.

As the prisoners themselves analyze all of the motivations of their characters, they start to work out deeply embedded personal, familial and social issues, all guided by Daccache in a magnificent performance of her own. She vociferously stays with her charges through all of their injurious self-doubts, through intense resistance to commit to the rigors of rehearsals and the exposure of performance. We learn immediately about the crimes these men committed, but the reasons why they find themselves behind bars (some for life) always surprise. Yes, some blame their upbringing, their parents, their surroundings, but most reveal that their own personalities and foibles were the “culprits” that caused them to lose their way.

12 Angry Lebanese

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