“Seek the truth not in mundane details of daily life but in the essence of life itself.”
This cryptic advice flashes across the screen as the opening credits scroll in Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12. The author of the words, B. Tosia, is unfamiliar to the point of anonymity, and possibly even fictional, serving as a sort of alter ego to the film’s director. But the impact is nonetheless the same: the audience is forewarned that details and facts—so seemingly straightforward; so apparent—do not always tell the whole story.
A capacity crowd of movie goers—among them Russian cinema buffs and Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History students from American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland at College Park and Baltimore County, as well as George Mason University—chased away the winter chill with hot cider, and dined on a pre-screening buffet of Russian delicacies and desserts before taking their seats in the Russian Embassy’s Tunlaw Theater.
Like its predecessors—Reginald Rose’s play Twelve Angry Men and Sidney Lumet’s film 12 Angry Men—Mikhalkov’s adaptation poses the same universal questions of law, morality, prejudice, and honor. Twelve jurors from disparate backgrounds—a surgeon; a scientist; a graveyard manager; a subway employee; a TV network executive; an entertainer; a taxi driver; and others—are thrown together to decide the fate of a young Chechen teen accused of the murder of his stepfather, a Russian military officer.
Dr. Eric Lohr—Carmel Institute Director, Chair of AU’s History Department, and the Susan E. Carmel Chair of Russian History and Culture—introduced the film by asking how many audience members had seen Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. A flurry of hands arose. Dr. Lohr explained that, in Lumet’s film, “there’s a young boy accused of murdering his father, and he is Puerto Rican. At the time, there are 12 white men…who talk about it. This was just after the height of the McCarthy era, so the theme was one individual standing up against the crowd; standing up against the consensus…individual rights, law, and principle prevailing over consensus.”
Mikhalkov’s film transports the action to Moscow, with the violence of the Chechen Wars informing the drama. Dr. Lohr provided a brief overview of the culture and the conflict.
“It’s a Muslim area of the North Caucasus, that was conquered in a 30-year, quite bloody series of wars, from 1830-1860… the area was conquered, but not really conquered. It was always kind of an autonomous and rebellious enclave within the Russian empire,” Dr. Lohr explained.
The North Caucasus was invaded and partly occupied by the Nazis during World War II, but was completely freed in 1943. On February 23, 1944, almost 75 years ago, Josef Stalin ordered ethnic Chechens—men, women, and children—deported to Central Asia. Their return to the region only took place in 1957.
“Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a move for independence in Chechnya,” Dr. Lohr recounted. Two wars followed.
“When the film was released in 2007, the war was still going on in Chechnya,” Dr. Lohr noted. The fighting was often punctuated by devastating episodes of terrorism that, Dr. Lohr shared, both transfixed and angered ordinary Russians. “I remember hearing—vividly, because I was living in Moscow at the time—the atmosphere on the streets of intense anti-Chechen feeling that swept through the country.”
Dr. Lohr observed that “there’s a lot of suffering in this film; there’s anti-Semitism; anti-Chechen prejudice; the arrogance of the wealthy and casual cruelty of people to others outside of their immediate circles.” Still, there is a triumph of the good: “But in the end—in Russia, just as in the United States—this film shows how one individual can use reason and appeals to conscience, forgiveness, law, and truth to bring eleven others, one by one, to a more fair, just, and tolerant view of the world,” Dr. Lohr said. “So in this sense, Mikhalkov’s film is like the original—a very hopeful and universal film.”
The evidence presented in court seems to overwhelmingly indicate that the Chechen boy is the murderer; indeed, as the jurors are taken to a school gym next door to the under-renovation courthouse, the bailiff observes, “You’ll be done in 20 minutes.” The verdict must be unanimous—and as the jurors prepare to vote, it appears “guilty” will be the undisputed conclusion.
However, after the ballots are cast—to the surprise, shock, and consternation of the assembled group—one juror votes for acquittal. “But we’re talking about a human being,” he earnestly pleads with his colleagues. His hesitation underscores an essential and unavoidable fact: a life hangs in the balance. “I want… well, to talk, at least,” he says.
With no other means of arriving at a unanimous vote, the case must be reviewed step by step. In the process, the very human doubts and fears, loves and hatreds, weaknesses and insecurities that inform the life stories of each juror—and their impact upon the verdict each is ready to render—are exposed, disturbingly calling into question the notion of objectivity and certainty. The vote teeters back and forth between “guilty” and “not guilty” with sometimes alarming ease.
A small bird accidentally trapped in the same space becomes an unintended witness to the prolonged deliberations, with its occasional fluttering attempts to find an exit serving as a anthropomorphized metaphor for a range of relevant human conditions: confinement and freedom; choices and options; actions and consequences.
Brutal flashbacks to the Chechen boy’s wartime childhood fill in a backstory that resonates with pain and loss, connecting the arc of his youthful existence to the personal sufferings of the jurors—who ultimately conclude that the teenager was framed by unscrupulous criminals in the construction business. As one of two remaining residents refusing to vacate a building scheduled for demolition and replacement by luxury apartments, his adopted father—and thereby, the adopted son himself—were obstacles to be eliminated.
But this realization, too, presents an agonizing dilemma: Once the accused youngster is freed, the criminals who framed him are sure to hunt down and kill him in revenge. Would a “guilty” verdict—while a miscarriage of justice—actually save his life? With agreement that the foreman will find the murderers and preserve the boy from harm, the unanimous “not guilty” vote is finally cast.
After the film, movie goers shared their impressions.
Hannah Fratt—a senior at Georgetown University—said, “I read Twelve Angry Men, I think in high school, and I’ve also seen the film. So it was really interesting to see it in a Chechen context, with different racial undertones. Obviously, there’s a parallel with the original… [but] I think the filmmaker also made use of some new motifs, and kind of approached it from a different lens in terms of cinematography.”
“We don’t get a lot of perspectives from the Chechen-Russian Wars,” said Haden Poythress, who is studying Russian at George Mason University. “I enjoyed listening to all of them change their minds; there was like a camaraderie between the men from all different backgrounds. They started out with certain prejudices, and they ended up, at the end, just all agreeing.”
Olivia Freeman—also a student at George Mason—found that her studies in anthropology, particularly the human capacity for “groupthink”, informed her assessment of the film. “It was kind of a prediction that someone put out there at the beginning of the movie, that you were just going to go with what the majority thought... I thought it was interesting that they did anonymous voting once—and then stopped.”
American University alumni were also in attendance. Danielle Bourn—who studied Economics while at AU—said she is a fan of the original movie, and thought Mikhalkov’s version delved more deeply into the characters’ backgrounds. “It pushed the story a little bit further, because it considered what would happen to the kid after he’s released,” she observed. “And it was a little different because they all kind of banded together to try to make sure he was OK, and he wasn’t killed afterwards.”
As the evening drew to a close, guests departed with heart-shaped cookies in anticipation of the Valentine’s Day holiday.
Photos from the film screening can be viewed on the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Facebook page.