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Can Lebanon’s Winds of Change Extend to Prison Reform?: A Discussion with “Second Wind” Directors Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui

Foreword:
In a fabric of collapsing infrastructures, the daily challenges endured by former prison inmates in Lebanon often go untold. Many inmates charged with nonviolent crimes are indiscriminately housed in overcrowded prisons across the country for durations that far exceed their sentences due to significant delays to the tribunal process. Even after their release, former inmates face systemic obstacles when attempting to rejoin society, sometimes giving them no choice but to revert to a life of crime. One organization which aims to equip former inmates with the skills needed to return to society is Nusroto, the efforts of which are depicted in the vivid documentary Second Wind, directed by Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui. We sat down with this duo to hear how the project developed.

Second Wind was released online on April 15th

Could you guys introduce yourselves and the production companies you work with today?

Nessim: Sure, I can go first. My name is Nessim Stevenson, I’m a filmmaker and photographer from Beirut. I mostly work on humanitarian and environmental topics. I’ve been with a production company called What Took You So Long for almost six years. It’s a very small international production company that mostly collaborates with NGOs and organizations. They were the main production company behind the documentary Second Wind.

Tariq: I’m Tariq Keblaoui, I’m a filmmaker/video journalist who works in all fields of fiction cinema, documentaries, video journalism, etc. I co-directed this project with Nessim, working under What Took You So Long. I also founded my own production company called Donkey Productions which has started to take off itself. It’s based here in Beirut and has a feature film in the works as well. 

How did you guys get into contact with the Nusroto Association and the former inmates* we met in the documentary? 

Nessim: It all starts with Search for Common Ground, a global organization focused on peacebuilding. They have an ongoing initiative which works with current and former inmates in prisons worldwide and were looking to produce a documentary about ex-prisoners in Lebanon and the challenges that they face outside of prison while trying to reintegrate back into society. We applied for this project and were eventually selected to produce it. From there we began tracking leads, one of the most responsive was Nusroto, an NGO that offers rehabilitation for recovering drug-addicts and ex-prisoners. They were keen for us to go up to Zahle and meet them. We were immediately introduced to a few of the patients and sat down with them without any cameras. Ahmad, one of the protagonists of the documentary, was the most engaged and connected with what we were saying, he immediately, you know, was giving off the vibe that he wanted to tell his story. He believed it would be an important, important project to take on. 

Tariq: When we got to Nusroto for the first time, we felt a bit like aliens. A lot of the guys were hesitant to meet us. We started telling them a bit about the idea and most of them were not really feeling it, especially when it came to being filmed. But you know, our main guy Ahmad was totally ready to drop some heavy truths and get his voice out there. On the way back from Zahle, Nessim suggested living with them for a few days. I thought that was a great idea. Slowly but surely, we started getting close to them, and hearing them out. I think once they began to realize that we only wanted to show what they wanted to share, they just kind of opened up to us and we ended up creating a beautiful relationship that we still have to this day. I’m actually still talking to Ahmad, he just got in touch with me and Nessim recently because he’s left rehab and is doing pretty well.

Official poster for the short documentary Second Wind (2021).

The documentary follows a handful of former inmates rehabilitating towards reintegration into society, thanks to, in large part, the Nusroto Association. What can you share about the challenges that they face when trying to readjust to life after prison?

Tariq: I think it was just really clear how much a second chance meant to these guys. These people have only experienced a very punishment-based system, probably throughout all of their lives, whether it be in their communities, or more governmental and prison systems. It can really help to overcome that with a group of people that can work together towards a common goal. 

Nessim: Yeah, it’s the transition really. The way that they would put it is that life in prison is just so crazy, destructive, harsh, and difficult. They almost have a different view of reality. So it really catches them off guard and they need that period of transition where they can talk to a counselor who’s not necessarily a therapist, but just kind of a mentor. They can have a back and forth, you know, asking questions about what is normal and what isn’t.

This was the first time you guys worked together. How did you divide up the production and direction responsibilities? Who usually did what?

Tariq: Well, I’ve known Nessim since high school, actually. We were not that close but we both knew we were in photography and filmmaking. One day he got in touch with me and asked me if I’d like to make a film with him. I was of course interested, it sounded like an awesome opportunity. Right from the get go, I think we had a lot of synergy, which is actually really quite rare to find in terms of starting a new partnership. We both wrote the script. I was more focused on editing and Nessim was more of a producer, etc. Throughout the whole process and in the field, however, there was very fluid communication of what we wanted to achieve as a documentary. We were totally aligned in just sharing these people’s stories and making it a cinematic experience that is engaging from start to finish. 

Nessim: It was great. I loved working with Tariq. Formally we say we co-directed; we were basically just two filmmakers that made a film together. Cameras aside, there was a lot of energy management as well when we were working on gaining the trust of these guys and trying to form a genuine connection. And so this required good synergy between us, not only to be comfortable working together but to create a safe space for the patients to express themselves.

Second Wind (سطر جديد) – [Official Trailer]. Vimeo, uploaded by Tariq Keblaoui, 28 Mar. 2021.

Can you share any interesting experiences or stories, something that wasn’t reflected in the final cut of the documentary?

Tariq: There was so much we had to cut out. There’s so much about their stories and their lives that are quite inspiring to hear, and also really tragic to hear. They really give you a good sense of how messed up things are in this country, and how much of a journey people coming from such a rough background need to go through to work on themselves. Living with them was great, like, we would just be cracking jokes all the time. 

Nessim: It was really bonding that was happening when the cameras were off. Things like chit chat over breakfast or the late nights when we’d already transferred all of the footage, you know, and the cameras were off. Those are the memories that I cherished. 

Tariq: One day, I didn’t have my camera with me and I was walking down the hallway. And then Adnan, one of the guys in the film, sees me and says he wants to show me something. He pulls out this big book and says, “This is a bunch of poetry that I wrote. Do you want to hear some?” He starts reading this poetry and it’s all about love, heartbreak, and aspirations and change and the like. This is a guy who has had like one of the roughest histories out of all the guys. At one point, I asked him, “Would you mind if I, you know, at least film one of your poems?” He was a bit shy at first but said OK.

Nessim: I’m going to continue here. So Tariq comes down, and he says, “We’re gonna film Adnan reading poetry. I’m like, okay, great. So we have the cameras. And you know, we’re standing outside the door and Adnan is looking through his books. Tariq asks him “What are you reading” he goes “heyde ghenniyet rap” [This is a rap song].

Tariq: That’s why in the film you can see he has a cheeky smile. We eventually used one of the patients’ rap songs with the moth scene, a special moment in the film.

Omar and Ahmad, two ex-inmates featured in the short documentary film Second Wind (2021). Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

In reference to Roumieh prison, one of the Nusroto patients said that even if you’re not guilty when you get in, you’ll be guilty by the time you get out. Can you elaborate on that?

Nessim: In a Lebanese prison you’re more likely to be sorted in terms of what your religious sect is as opposed to what your crime is. So if you are caught with a little lump of hashish, you can be put with all sorts of murders or horrible criminals. You also have criminal networks that operate from within prisons and they’re very aware of the fact that your criminal record is going to be tainted and that it’s going to be very difficult to get a job once you are released. They are exposed to the tricks of the drug trade along the way, and then there is this network that is waiting for you to realize that you can’t get a job when you are out and so they try to recruit you. 

Tariq: One of the big themes in this film was actually the criminal record. Once you leave prison, you’re limited from doing certain things in society, including not being able to get a job. Imagine you go to jail and are put in a room with a bunch of guys, and you pick up a bunch of bad habits from them. You would probably get into drugs, even if you weren’t involved in that beforehand. Some time later, you get out of jail, and you’re told you can’t get a job for three years, you can’t get a new driver’s license, you can’t renew your passport, you can’t wield certain tools in public, etc. There’s a whole bunch of significant obstacles. These people return to their communities and are expected to somehow make a living without any funding or any sort of help from any government entity. Some NGOs like Nusroto help, of course, but ex-inmates are essentially forced to go back down the wrong path once they leave prison, because they’re given absolutely no other option. If you are released and need to provide for your family and yourself, drug dealing unfortunately ends up being very tempting. What are you going to do? Wait patiently for two years to get a job in a failing economy? We rarely get to hear the voices of people going through this. That’s kind of why we made the film.

Ex-inmates attend frequent music sessions at the Nusroto Institution, Second Wind (2021).  Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui

How are institutions like Nusroto getting the resources (human and financial) needed to sustain their rehabilitation efforts?

Nessim: It’s mostly through private funding or through larger developmental organization funding. Sadly however, it appeared to us that it is very difficult to secure funds for drug addicts and former inmates.

Tariq: The only way we survive in this country is by independent bodies of people coming in to contribute their time and their money to help everyone else out because there is no governmental help. In Lebanon, you know, it’s private groups and individuals who go out of their way to help people and contribute their time and work for free and do so for the pure sake of societal responsibility. That is all that is carrying institutions like Nusroto unfortunately.

Haircut on the set of Second Wind (2021). Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

Your stated mission with Second Wind is to mobilize the local community to promote improvements in the reintegration process for former prison inmates. After the release of the documentary, how would you say you have fared? Any success stories to share?

Nessim: I’d say our main objective was really to challenge our audience to change the perception they have about prisoners and ex-prisoners in Lebanon. From that perspective, I think the film has done a good job. People who have watched it mentioned they had never thought of this issue, and that the film really managed to humanize these people and their stories in a way that made them almost identify with them. When we first released the film, all of the screenings that we held were online due to COVID, this kind of limited our exposure at first. It’s still an ongoing process, the film isn’t public yet. Once it’s public, then we can push it a little bit further, and then we can engage a wider audience. We do however have a success story we can share. Ahmad, from the film, was present with us for multiple panels for university screenings of Second Wind. A representative from the Ministry of Justice, Judge Raja Abi Nader, joined one of these panels and he actually publicly apologized to Ahmad on behalf of the justice system for the challenges he had been subjected to.

Tariq: To finally see a judge of prison reform apologize before a whole audience, was a big deal for a guy who’s never ever been shown any kindness from this rough, unforgiving punishment system. It did tear me up when I heard about their exchange for the first time. I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece of work that has been so well-received.

Miled recounts his struggles with wrongful accusations in Second Wind (2021).  Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

Do you feel that the void between increasing incarceration and inmate rehabilitation is growing in Lebanon’s current crisis? Are institutions like Nusroto able to carry this responsibility alone?

Nessim: Of course, more governmental support is needed. The work that organizations like Nusroto are doing are kind of like a bandaid over a gigantic festering wound that’s just getting more and more infected. There is no way that this is sustainable; it’s not even achieving, you know, a fraction of what is needed today. The fact that there are more and more people being incarcerated means that it’s not going to work out even as it stands. The services that are offered within the prison system are very limited, in terms of psychosocial support, employment support, and drug rehabilitation. They are not supported in learning new trades or navigating their legal troubles either. This is probably not surprising to anybody, but the government is currently doing much much less than what it ought to be doing. One example of that are the delays in tribunals, which is something that we haven’t even spoken about yet. There is a backlog in tribunals and trials, which means that it can take years before your trial can start, and your verdict for punishment could be less than the time that you actually spent in prison up until that point. Ahmed experienced being in prison for three years. At the three-year mark, his sentence came out to be around two years. So, he spent an extra year in prison due to trial delays, and obviously he wasn’t compensated for that.

Title screen from the documentary Second Wind (2021). Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

The name Second Wind is quite a good fit. How did you land on it?

Nessim: Satr Jadeed is the Arabic name that we started with. After production when it was time to name the film, we were on a Whatsapp group with the former inmates and their mentors to get their ideas. A mentor sent a voice note out to everyone, asking them to come up with names. They sent us a bunch of examples, a few good ones but most were bad. Finally, someone pitched Satr Jadeed and it stuck. Next, we had to choose an English version. We started by translating it to New Page or New Line but those did not work.

Tariq: We basically wanted to try and figure out a name that would reflect Satr Jadeed as an idiom, but in English. It was a pretty agonizing process, actually, but we finally got to Second Wind. This was in reference to gathering the energy and strength to get up and keep going after you are knocked down. Also, around halfway through the film, there’s a song by Fayrouz, “Nassam Alayna Al Hawa”, which means “the wind came upon us”, so we built on that connection as well.

A still from Omar’s moth dance in Second Wind (2021).  Photo Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

Pivoting to a broader topic now. How would you say that Lebanon’s independent film community has changed or evolved since October 17 and the multiple crises that followed?

Tariq: Between October 17 and now, there’s been an incredible increase in awareness being spread, powered by upstart independent movements and groups, your magazine is a good example of that. Several online news sources have also grown quite large on a regional scale since. However, I would say from all the film and documentary festivals I’ve been to in the past few years, I’m surprised that there’s so much less content than you’d imagine coming out in regards to the thawra. I believe it’s because of the convoluted nature of the political system we’re in. It’s hard to properly cover what’s going on without naming a few big names and naming a few political groups, and some people are more sympathetic to some groups than they are to others so that just gets kind of really muddy. We are stuck in this muddled political system that we can’t get out of, because of intertwining interests and hates, etc. I feel like however, of course, compared to pre-October 17, there is a much more outspoken way that people approach tackling the system and the need for change as well as addressing what the problem is. Back in the day before the thawra, you could be in a service or a taxi and be worried about whispering the name of some political person in that regard. Now it’s just graffitied all over our streets. There is a huge shattering of this dome that used to protect them. We couldn’t speak ill about them because of the fear of another civil war, which is their narrative that they’ve always depended on. October 17 has come to show that people do want to make change. They’re willing to go the extra mile and work independently to bring about that change. Hopefully it’s just the beginning.

Building off of this, what role do you guys envision local film playing in the resurgence we are hoping for in Lebanon?

Nessim: Lebanese filmmakers are known for being very talented and creative. Hopefully people can muster up the courage and gather the energy needed to tell stories in a way that will mobilize some kind of change. Tariq mentioned that maybe it’s not happening on a scale that we would hope for, and that’s probably because everyone’s exhausted and just trying to keep it all together. And also, not to mention, there’s a huge exodus of artists. But those who stick around (and even those who are abroad) continue making films about the topic, you know, bringing in their fresh energy from abroad. Hopefully, hopefully they can play a role in changing people’s perspectives a little bit. Showing people that there certainly is another way of living and functioning as a country and maybe in the coming elections they can also help sway some votes and open some minds.

Tariq: At the beginning of the October 17 revolution, hope was as high as you could possibly imagine in all of us and the energy in the entire country completely changed. For obvious reasons, it has been hard for people to sustain that level of energy since then. All we can hope for is that those who still have the energy to make films and tell stories that need to be told continue to push their audiences in the right direction. We must still keep trying and look at the results of our recent efforts to prove to ourselves that change can and does happen. We can only hope that these kinds of films will bring upon a “second wind” of momentum. See what I did there?

Second Wind was shortlisted at the Lebanese Independent Film Festival and won “Best Local Short Documentary” in September 2021. Photo Courtesy of  LIFF – Lebanese Independent Film Festival.

We’ve noticed that some local film festivals have already taken note of Second Wind. Will any international festivals follow suit?

Tariq: We’ve actually just recently got into the Oslo Film Festival, it’s going to be our international premiere. We also won Best Local Short Documentary at the Lebanese Independent Film Festival, which was extremely honoring, we were very, very humbled by that. 

Nessim: If there’s public awareness on this subject and people know that Lebanese prisons are a disaster right now, then there’s a bit more pressure publicly to trigger some kind of reform. Without the local recognition and publicity, there is no impetus for the government to do anything about it. That being said, the festival circuit is not really what we intend. You know, our audience really liked this film, it was not made with an international audience in mind. It was really made for Lebanese communities so that we can create change locally. So whether we succeed internationally or not, it doesn’t really matter that much. It would be good to get that international recognition and to have the participants know that this film is going abroad, and maybe that could help us push things a little bit further in Lebanon. But yeah, like I said, it’s not really the primary goal for us.

What future projects do your companies have in the works? Is there anything that maybe you can tease us with or anything we can informally announce when we publish the interview?

Nessim: My production company (What Took You So Long) is really moving in the direction of original content. For over a decade, we’ve been mostly working for clients and making videos and documentaries for them. Now we feel like we’re in a position where we can start telling our own stories the way we want to tell them. Second Wind fits into that nicely because it was a good transition. Even though we were commissioned by an NGO, that NGO gave us a lot of freedom. I mean, of course, there was some red tape here and there, but they gave us a lot of freedom when it came to the style and technique with which we wanted to tell the story. So it felt almost like we were creating an original piece. And so, yeah, hopefully we can make more of this kind of work, more long-form documentaries.

Tariq: I’ve got two projects lined up personally. The first one is another feature-length documentary, and I’m going to be working with my good colleague, Aline Deschamps. We are making a documentary about the human trafficking of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. We’re trying to cover it from the angle of before, during, and after their work experience because there are quite a lot of documentaries that already cover the Kafala (sponsorship) System. Those films mostly just talk about the current abuses going on in the present day. You never really hear the stories about how they were persuaded to come to Lebanon, to, you know, to pursue a Utopian dream that never gets realized, and how incredibly hard it is for them to return back home after that. So anyway, for the second project I’m actually going back to making some fiction. I’m currently finalizing a feature-length film script set in modern day Lebanon. Can’t talk too much about it, but I’m really excited about it. I actually think it’s going to be very, very relevant to where we are in the midst of this economic crisis. I can’t wait to share more with you eventually.


*Former inmates attending the Nusroto Rehabilitation Center are also referred to as patients throughout the interview


Directors of the short documentary film “Second Wind” (2021):

Photos Courtesy of Nessim Stevenson and Tariq Keblaoui.

Nessim Stevenson

Tariq Keblaoui

Hani Daou
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Hani Daou is a Lebanese electrical engineer based in California. After graduating from the University of California San Diego, he held roles in optical system development with Silicon Valley giants like Intel and Apple Inc. Hani recently rejoined MultiLane, a high-speed test equipment vendor based in Lebanon, in order to bring global attention to Lebanese innovation and contribute to local hi-tech job creation. As a passionate writer he regularly produces publications relevant to the hi-speed data communications industry in addition to topics related to the multiple crises affecting Lebanon.

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