Has just come out of ’12 Angry Lebanese’. An unbelievably powerful film documenting the way a Lebanese female comedian and drama therapist succeeded in getting together a group of hardened male prisoners made out of murderers, rapists and drug dealers, and successfully worked with them for more than a year on staging the play ’12 Angry Men’.
Feminism is about many things. It is about undermining patriarchal relations of power and empowering women of course. But it can also be about getting men to critically reflect and transform their masculinity, not necessarily to become non-masculine, though that is an option, but at least to reach a masculinity that is not enmeshed in patriarchal relations of domination. In that last sense, '12 Angry Lebanese' is an incredible feminist achievement.
Even when marginalised and devalorised as criminals, many male prisoners, and in most societies, are often perceived and idealised as the embodiment of an untamed masculinity. In this idealisation crime is perceived as letting one’s masculinity do the talking whether in the form of physical or social or sexual male self-assertion. The film’s prisoners are representative of a common working-class form of Lebanese hyper-masculinity. In the interviews that run throughout the film, the prisoners in fact describe to us some of the key features of this masculinity and particularly, its virulent narcissism, in very vivid terms.
But as they become involved in the play, the hyper masculinity of the prisoners starts unravelling and they begin confronting it as part of what has led them to crime. The result is tragic all the more so as it is happening in front us on camera. By tragic I don’t mean sad as much as what Pierre Vidal-Naquet defines as proper to tragedy as a form. I don’t remember where or exactly what he says. But he defines tragic action as an action that manages to hybridise rational reflection on oneself and one's aims while at the same time knowingly risking oneself by entering the unknown that constantly escapes us. Through their active participation in the play the prisoners were definitely making certain choices involving a rational comfrontation with their own hyper masculinity. But at the same time the confrontation was also very clearly taking them into uncharted territories in which we can see them coming face to face with the unknown: something that is shown to be both frightening and exhilirating at the same time.
I think the film was also feminist in a powerfully non-universalist sense: it not only captures the cultural specificities of this masculinity but it was also attuned to a culturally specific way of speaking to it critically without making the prisoners experience their de-masculinisation as dis-empowerment and de-phallicisation. Indeed the opposite is true. We can see them experience their de-masculinisation as liberation: A truly remarkable achievement.
I hope that the film is given a commercial run. I hope that at least it will circulate within the Lebanese and Arab community here. Especially that some of the Lebanese, here in Australia more so than anywhere in the world, seem to have inherited some of this working class/under-class Lebanese hyper-masculinity.
In the meantime, the Arab Film festival will move from Sydney to a capital city near you. Check it out and go and see this film, and perhaps you can also see through it the sterility and cheer dumbness, when its not the outright racism, of those westerners who use sexism and patriarchy as instruments of a cultural war against Arabs and Muslims.