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Docs Behind Bars: DOK Leipzig's Collaboration with Juvenile Inmates

By Sevara Pan

The Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center, site of DOK Leipzig's DOK im Klast program. Courtesy of  Art therapy at the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center.

When one thinks of a festival’s screening venues, a prison is not an immediate choice. But since 2013, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (DOK Leipzig) has run an initiative, dubbed DOK im Knast (DOK in Prison), which annually turns the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center into one of its screening venues. And the center, which sits on the Pleisse river some 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) south of Leipzig, is not just the festival's most unusual venue. DOK im Knast is one of the festival’s many projects that aims at engaging youth through documentary film. DOK Leipzig, which runs this year from October 28 through November 3, has been driven by the desire to "make it possible for everyone to watch documentaries and discuss them," as Leena Pasanen, director of DOK Leipzig puts it. The year 2016 saw the festival bring films to the city’s central railway station for the first time, giving the public a chance to watch documentaries for free. Pasanen, who has been at the helm of DOK Leipzig since 2015, and who will leave the festival after the 2019 edition to head Biografilm Festival in Bologna, Italy, values the "inclusion" that film screenings offer at such venues. She is convinced that "it creates dialogue between everybody who is at the screening," which she considers "very valuable" as it can serve as "an impulse" for change.

With the exception of 2018, the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center has opened its doors to the public and accredited film professionals during the festival. Head of DOK Leipzig's Programme Coordination Kim Busch, who has moderated screenings at the center, commends the animated discussions that often ensue. "The inmates would often have equally as many questions," she notes. "I really like their questions because they tend to be less timid of sounding not academic enough. While the outside audience would try to ask very elaborate questions, the inmates would have questions that are spot on, sometimes tackling topics without being afraid of saying something that could offend a director. They would really challenge the director. Filmmakers enjoyed that very much." Of course, one ought not to discount other advantages to organizing such events at the detention center. Film screenings and ensuing discussions may bring a sense of normality to the inmates’ lives, break their daily routine and reduce the time spent in a cell. "Some appreciate watching films with fellow inmates, while others enjoy the exchange with an outside audience," Busch elaborates.

In an effort to bolster this initiative, a decision was made to form a special film jury, composed exclusively of inmates. In the framework of art therapy at Regis-Breitingen, the special jury chooses the films from DOK Leipzig's Official Selection to be screened for other inmates, and selects the best film for the Gedanken-Aufschluss Prize. Busch argues that being part of the jury has given the detainees "the notion that their opinions are worthy, that they can share them with others, and that people are interested in what they have to say." A former jurist echoes this sentiment, saying, "I loved the fact that I could make decisions and express my opinions. It was fun to work with other inmates and get to know different views. It has strengthened solidarity within the group and [boosted] my self-confidence, and that of others as well."

The selection of films was not always an easy task, the inmate confides, as it meant taking responsibility and making sure that a chosen film "speaks to his fellow inmates." The detainee seems to welcome such exposure to the documentary genre, admitting that he now watches "a lot more documentary films," which has made him "more attentive and curious."

At times, the jury’s film choices have been surprising. Pasanen is impressed with the prison jury"s "intriguing" choices and "open-minded" approach to films, ranging from Claude Barras' beguiling stop-motion animation My Life as a Courgette (2016), which tells the story of abused youngsters in an orphanage, to Karen Winther's Exit (2018), which braves the depths of one's right-wing extremist past, to Nicola Graef's portrait of the esteemed German painter in Neo Rauch—Comrades and Companions (2016).

The DOK im Knast initiative sparked further film-related activities inside the prison. In summer of 2016, German illustrator, cartoonist and director Schwarwel joined Vera Schmidt of the Leipzig-based nonprofit organization OSTPOL e. V. in holding a film workshop for the inmates. Schmidt notes that the age of the convicts was a factor when deciding about the workshop launch date. "They are so young, they either go to school or are doing vocational training in prison. Only during summer holidays, they have free time to participate in such a workshop." The workshop, which ran for around two months, resulted in six short films by the detainees. These personal projects gave the inmates room to reflect upon their lives in detention, and, amid stubbornly high reconviction rates, ponder over questions like: Why am I here? Should I be here? What can I do to never come back?

Apart from the tangible results, Schmidt also witnessed the inmates' heightened self-confidence with each new premiere during the three days of screenings at the detention center. "On the first day, they were shy," she remembers. "I told them that whenever there is a question from the audience, and you do not want to answer it, just pass the question to me. On the third day, they really knew how to handle it. They became more confident; now they had something to be proud of. They liked the attention; they liked being on stage. They considered themselves filmmakers." Recalling her experience at the premiere, Schmidt shares a heartfelt episode: "I got them flowers because it is a classic thing to do at a premiere. Then the next day, they wanted me to have a flower as well. They could not organize it quickly, it was a big hassle, but they could not wait to give the flower to me. It was something they learned."

Nearly three years since this premiere, Regis-Breitingen has been forced to reduce the screenings down to one day per year. Nevertheless, Pasanen lauds the prison management and the art therapists for going the extra mile to keep this initiative afloat despite the institution’s limited resources. "I have to say that I admire the prison staff because they do everything to keep this activity alive, even when it means they have to volunteer their time. For us, it is a beautiful [testament to] the power of film. There will always be some people who think, 'Why spend money, time and energy on those who have committed a crime and serve their time in prison?' But I feel it is our duty to help this group of young people find another path in life."

Documentary spoke with Stefan Lohrke, art therapist at Regis-Breitingen, and artist Schwarwel, who together with Lohrke's colleagues Katja Schumacher and Sandra Strauss and OSTPOL’s Schmidt, carried out the film workshop for the inmates in 2016. This interview, which was translated from German, has been edited for length and clarity.

The prison jury presents the winning film during the 2018 DOK im Knast (DOK in Prison) at the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center. Courtesy of Art therapy at the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center.

DOCUMENTARY: How did the partnership with DOK Leipzig come about?

STEFAN LOHRKE: As my former colleague Ms. [Kaja] Schumacher and I were expanding art therapy at the Regis-Breitingen juvenile prison, we came up with the idea of supplementing the institution's monthly cinema events with a film offering that would address social and cultural issues. After several film evenings with the detainees, my colleague took the next step and contacted DOK Leipzig, which pushed the doors open. The first DOK im Knast event was held in 2013, and it was crowned with success. It has given us a perfect opportunity to connect with the detainees on many levels, challenge them, expose them to new experiences and enable them to gain insights into societal issues. Through this event, we could work with the detainees from the point of view of therapy, social pedagogy and art.

D: Can you tell us about the so-called Prison Jury at Regis-Breitingen?

SL: Since the first event in 2013, we have followed through with our desire to appeal to the youngsters and their sense of responsibility. The young men, who have an affinity for the arts, only have to bring along a minimum of social competence to have the opportunity to be part of our intercultural jury.

D: What does the selection process look like once the Prison Jury is formed?
SL: The films that DOK Leipzig sends to us are, in principle, the same as those available to the juries outside the prison. However, since our jury consists solely of juveniles, we can only view a small part of films, most of which are German-speaking. With a lot of patience and perseverance, we watch these films together and discuss them according to our self-developed questionnaire. The [discussions] lead to a ranking, where the best-rated films make headway. The results are logged as not to lose track of them later.

D: How do you coordinate the work of the prison jury?

SL: We try to maintain the structural framework in order to ensure that the detainees have enough energy to do their job as the jury. Of course, the tasks within the jury are largely shared, depending on the talents and skills of its members, and we give them impetus for self-coordination [within the group]. For example, we make an award out of clay and other material, and we write a note of laudation. The inmates support each other in all these tasks. One inmate, who is rather shy, would write a speech, while another, who likes to be the center of attention, would then deliver it on behalf of the group at the event.

D: Can you tell us about the workshop that you held at the detention center in 2016?

SL: During the workshop, young men made films with the renowned cartoonist Schwarwel. The workshop was brought about in partnership with the Justice Ministry of the Saxon State, the Regis-Breitingen juvenile detention center, DOK Leipzig, OSTPOL and [Schwarwel’s company] Gluecklicher Montag [Happy Monday]. The latter two put together an intensive crowdfunding campaign to secure funding for the workshop. During the first meeting, Schwarwel showed the detainees his own biographical animated film and invited them to try to do something similar with his support. With limited technical possibilities and material but a lot of imagination and creativity, we then carried out this project with 12 young men and the artistic team. There was a wonderful team spirit, and even tears of joy. The workshop lasted about two months, with one or two working sessions per week, which usually ran over several hours. During this time, the detainees filmed, photographed and recorded music for the soundtrack. Fortunately, we also had some musicians among the inmates, who recorded music for some of the films to avoid any copyright complications.

D: What was your role in the workshop?

SL: We brought along our experience in handling the inmates and carrying out an art project in a penitentiary, with as little friction as possible. In addition to maintaining the security framework and looking after the external team of artists, we provided some artistic support to the inmates in between the working sessions.

SCHWARWEL: My job was that of the workshop leader, which meant holding the group together and helping them at every point of their project, from brainstorming to scripting and filming. Since it was not possible for the participants to edit their films on the site due to the limited technical possibilities inside the prison, Sandra [Strauss] and I took the raw material and the participants’ edit specifications into our studio to cut it there. In our next workshop, we would show the inmates the intermediate results and talk with them about the desired changes. We needed more time because of such organizational pitfalls, and we definitely wanted the participants to get the best possible results from their work.

D: Did you face any difficulties or resistance when organizing the workshop?

SL: The implementation of projects involving external partners is almost never easy inside a prison. One must consider numerous safety matters and organizational hurdles. Of course, the artists had no keys, and there are many doors to be locked and opened inside the prison. There have always been various challenges, but with some extra work and creativity, we have always found solutions. Of course, good communication is imperative between law enforcement officers, who are responsible for trouble-free operations and security, and us, who wish to offer a reasonable level of artistic freedom. In the end, I believe that Schwarwel’s reputation earned their liking. And as a result, the cooperation went flawlessly.

S:  It was even of benefit that the juvenile detention center had such clear rules, which we could follow. The prison management has a genuine interest in giving their detainees new opportunities and access to education and advancement, rather than merely managing them until they have served their sentence. Of course, this has helped tremendously to eliminate organizational and other problems.

D: What kind of restrictions did the inmates have while working on their films?

SL: [In a way], the project presented them with an additional freedom within their everyday life in prison. For example, apart from the regular workout time in the prison yard, during which the inmates can move freely, they could shoot in the yard near the sports equipment or undertake some expeditions with a camera in search of images for animated scenes in their films. Of course, certain safety-sensitive aspects, including the location of surveillance cameras, keys and locks, could not appear or occupy center stage in any of the pictures.

S: The participants saw the workshop as something liberating. They could work on projects that they otherwise would not have worked on—not behind bars anyway.

D: What tools were available to the inmates during the workshop?

SL: The inmates were mostly making handmade animated films. The material, which was recorded and assembled by the detainees, was then edited by Schwarwel and his team in their studio outside the prison. They did subtle technical refinement, without changing the detainees' scripts, while also trying to preserve the charm of the handmade animation. That was certainly not an easy task.

S: The art therapists had a couple of cameras, and we also brought some with us. The participants could work on the computer only under supervision. Otherwise, we had the usual tools: flip charts, pens, craft material for stop-motion films, prints that the participants wanted to use as cut-ins. For years now, we at Gluecklicher Montag have designed our workshops in such a way that the participants can implement their ideas with the most readily available means. We care about people expressing their ideas. This can usually be done with the most rudimentary means, and it also unlocks one's creativity if they want to bring to life big ideas with very limited means.

D: Did the detainees work in groups or independently during the workshop?

SL: There were two inmates who wrote their screenplays more or less by themselves. The other four films were created in a group. When it came down to the technical implementation, all the inmates supported each other—be it when designing pictures, filming or making music. For instance, the inmates helped each other out by playing guitar and piano pieces. The whole time it felt like we were a big team.

S: We gave the participants freedom to choose between working individually or in a team, as it simply makes no sense to force someone to work individually when they feel extremely uncomfortable and insecure doing so, and the other way around. Although the number of participants fluctuated due to the relocation or release of some of them, we had already formed teams at the beginning and left open the possibility of being able to change teams so that all planned projects could be carried through to the end.

D: Can you tell us about the films that were made during the workshop?

S: During the kickoff meeting, the participants wanted to talk about themselves in their films—and in the end they did just that. The films varied across a wide spectrum—from an animation film made in the style of South Park, to a stop-motion film featuring [the inmate’s] rap [lyrics] and chess pieces, to a self-reflective film on freedom. We were amazed at what was possible. In some way, they went beyond their limits. The result is ultimately a proof that they have taken on their [personal] crises and dealt with them. Their films tackled their daily lives in prison and addressed questions like, How did I get here? Where would I rather be now? And what do I expect when I get out?

D: Has the initiative had any impact on the detainees?

SL: The creation of an artwork compels one to hold up a mirror to oneself. When one creates something and shares it with others, it strengthens one’s self-esteem. That was noticeable in this project as well. None of the inmates had ever had anything to do with animated films in the past. All the more sublime was their experience at the screenings inside the prison in front of other inmates and an external audience. I think it takes a lot of courage to present your film there.

S: A prison is not the coolest place on earth, and it casts a shadow over you when bars behind you are closed, even if you know that you are going home tonight. It does something to you. Most of the time after a workshop day, we would spend half an hour in the car, ruminating about all the stories we had heard and shared throughout the day. People who used to struggle with finding words and resort to violence to solve problems—getting them to have mutually stimulating discussions with one another— that was wonderful.


Sevara Pan is a Berlin-based journalist and film critic.