12: Modern Day Russian Propaganda or a Cultural Exposé?

Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 (2007) is a Russian film in which a group of 12 jurors must decide the fate of an 18-year old Chechen boy (Apti Magamaev) accused of murdering his Russian stepfather, a military officer. The film, an adaptation of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), holds much of the same characteristics as the latter: each of the 12 men come in with their own biases and prejudices and must come to a unanimous decision before being allowed to leave the room. In 12, however, the men aren’t stuffed into a cramped juror room; instead, the jurors are placed in a dilapidated school gymnasium that’s conveniently near the courthouse. The crumbling state of the gym is meant to symbolize Russia’s crumbling and failing infrastructure.

Like the film’s older cousin, 11 men immediately come to the conclusion that the boy is guilty (without viewing or attempting to debunk any of the prosecution’s evidence) and one man, not knowing whether the boy is truly guilty or not, votes not guilty because he realizes that this is someone’s life they have in their hands and they need to ponder more about their decision before they decide to convict him.

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The film’s cover, courtesy of IMDB

In the film, the twelve men represent the different types of Russian men–there’s the racist and anti-Semitic cabbie, a surgeon from the Caucasus, a Harvard-educated television producer, an elderly Jewish intellectual, a musician, a cemetery manager, and others. Each of them share a bit from their personal lives with the group, thus allowing the viewer to understand more about them as a person. Throughout the film, we get bits and pieces of the Chechen boy’s war-torn life–from him growing up with his mother and father and learning the art of the lezginka (a traditional Chechen dance) to attempting to survive in an abandoned basement alone after his family was murdered.

The movie is highly emotional and keeps you planted in your seat right from the start. Each man tells his own sad tale: one shares how he blames himself for his son’s suicide, another tells the men how his business scams the mourning families of the deceased out of thousands of Rubles, etc. These intertwine with the boy’s story, even though we barely hear him actually speak throughout the whole film.

Structurally, the film is spectacular. The actors’ performances are mesmerizing and the cinematography is beautiful.

However, I do have one huge issue with this film: it completely misrepresents Russian-Chechen relations and is undoubtedly “Pro-Putin.”

It seems extremely likely to me that the beginning of the film would have been the same in real life–that is, that 11/12 of the men deemed the boy guilty from the very start just because he is a Chechen. It comes as no surprise that the cabbie regards the boy as  “a stinking Chechen dog.” However, *spoiler alert* the men slowly debunk the prosecution’s evidence and unanimously decide that the boy is not guilty. But, knowing that the boy will most likely die as soon as he gets out of jail because he will go looking for his stepfather’s murderer, one of the jurors wants to keep him in jail in order to keep the boy alive.

After discussing this with the rest of the jurors, this same man decides that he will help the boy by basically adopting him. He waits for the boy outside of the jail and tells him that he will help him find whoever killed his stepfather.

This is highly unrealistic.

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Along with directing and co-writing the film, Nikita Mikhalkov (center) is also the head juror that ends up adopting the boy in the end

Russians and Chechens have long had their problems with each other and Mikhalkov’s portrayal of the kind and open-minded Russians is simply impractical. Tensions between the two cultures are still high and many Russians are still very racist toward Chechens.

That didn’t stop Russians and film critics worldwide from eating this film up. 12 has a 78% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics and an 84% approval rating from the viewers. Even Putin said that the film “brought a tear to the eye.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman even marks the film as “heavy-handed.”

With that being said, I think Mikhalkov touches on a lot of contemporary Russian issues (example: pointing out the crumbling Russian infrastructure).

I think it would do the film an injustice to fully praise it or condemn it. Regardless of the perhaps too forgiving portrayal of Russians, Mikhalkov perfectly exposes Russian stereotypes and shows the viewers a side to Russia that many never get to experience for themselves (let alone know even existed).

Additionally, regardless of the negative things I’ve said about the film, it is one that I’ve had in my possession for about 4 years and one that I watch fairly regularly, especially if I want to get a good cry in.