Director Zeina Daccache on how her films inspire change in Lebanese prisons

Her latest documentary 'The Blue Inmates', about prisoners who've been diagnosed with mental illness, is in competition at El Gouna Film Festival

Zeina Daccache has been in Lebanese prisons for about 16 years, starting as a drama therapist and play director and then becoming an activist and film director.

Her previous two documentaries, 12 Angry Lebanese, shot in Roumieh prison, and Scheherazade’s Diary, in the Baabda female prison, won several international awards each and inspired changes to the Lebanese penal code.

The Blue Inmates, which had its world premiere at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival on Tuesday, follows inmates inside Roumieh who produce a theatre play about their fellow inmates who've been diagnosed with mental illness.

Daccache sheds light on issues in the prisons in her films, and lobbies to lawmakers in parallel, whether it be pushing to reduce sentences for good behaviour or protecting women from domestic violence.

“I always believe that the prisons are a microcosm of our society, so if you are making a change inside, you’re making a change in the society,” Daccache tells The National.

With The Blue Inmates, she hopes to help change the law for offenders who are defined as "mad", "possessed" or "insane", which states that they must be incarcerated until “cured”. Daccache argues that mental illness is managed and never cured. Through her non-profit drama therapy organisation Catharsis, she introduced a bill in 2016 to the Lebanese Parliament that still waits to be passed.

"These people end up forever and ever awaiting a miracle from God, from the universe to be cured, to be out, which means they die inside," she says.

Daccache’s journey into Lebanese prisons began after she studied drama and then decided to pursue a master's degree in clinical psychology.

“After completing my master's, I said, can’t we mix both? Isn’t there anything where art can serve people to heal?” she says.

She discovered drama therapy, founded Catharsis in 2007, and asked permission from government entities to use the techniques with prisoners at Roumieh. Without any intention of making a documentary, she still ended up filming 250 hours during the three-year project.

The result was 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary, which chronicles the inmates’ stage adaptation of the 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men. It premiered at the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival, where it won first prize for Best Documentary and the People’s Choice Award.

At the same time, Daccache brought lawmakers' attention to the fact that prisoners have no hope of changing their sentences based on good conduct. It was after the film that a 2002 law, to reduce prison sentences for good behaviour, was finally implemented.

“I didn’t mean to lobby, but actually it was lobbying, and then the ministers listened,” Daccache says.

For her next film, she created the play Scheherazade in Baabda, with the inmates of Baabda women’s prison, and shed light on issues such as domestic violence. Scheherazade’s Diary won the Fipresci prize in the documentary category at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, as well as Best Documentary at the 2014 Lebanese Film Festival, and Best Arab film at the 36th Cairo International Film Festival in 2014.

Daccache used the film to show the women’s stories and Catharsis drafted a law for protection from domestic violence. In April 2014, a bill for the protection of women and family members was passed in the Lebanese parliament.

In The Blue Inmates, “normal” inmates play the roles of prisoners who have been diagnosed with mental illness, in a theatre production. They are in the blue building, or psychiatric unit, of Roumieh. Daccache began shooting in 2015 and secured her first funding from Agnes Varis Trust in 2017.

“These are long projects,” she says. “I archive for years and I go watch for another year. Then I start editing because I want it to be as true as possible. I’m not here with my own script. It’s the script of these inmates.”

The film won El Gouna Film Festival prize at the Final Cut in Venice workshop in September 2020, with a $5,000 cash prize and an invitation to participate at the festival’s CineGouna Platform last year. It also won a €5,000 ($5,800) cash prize from Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

Entering prisons has become more challenging now with the Covid-19 pandemic, Daccache says.

“Even if you’re vaccinated, you need to take a PCR every time you enter, which makes it very difficult for everyone."

She and the Catharsis team used to offer therapy three times a week. Now, she conducts most of the therapy virtually and visits every couple of months.

Daccache is not sure what her next endeavour will be, but it will surely be in the same vein as her previous works. She is buoyed not only by policy changes, but by the changes in the inmates themselves.

“Their communication changed, their sleep, their relationship with their family, notions of anger,” she says. “Despair for the future turned into more hope.”

The Blue Inmates will be screened at El Gouna Film Festival on Wednesday, October 20 at 9pm. The full schedule of films is here.

Updated: October 20th 2021, 9:05 AM