When inmates become film-makers
Mahdia, Tunisia - The prison at Mahdia hosted screenings of films produced by prisoners as part of a project titled In Quest of Different Views: Reflecting on Prison Images, which promotes culture inside Tunisian prisons.
The project, under the supervision of the Tunisian Federation of Film Societies and a number of non-governmental organisations, included workshops to help prisoners learn film production. Prisoners’ films were screened in Tunisian cinemas and universities in recent months.
“The idea was to promote cinema and theatre in prisons and other correctional centres. The idea was to recreate the theme of the Utopia of Plato. The programme examines different views on life through that perspective,” said Kamal Regaya, artistic director of the project.
Fatma Bchini, general-secretary of the Tunisian Federation of Film Societies, said the project relies on developing exchanges between the outside world and prison environments.
“Outside the prison, there is the programme of the monthly screenings in which films produced by prisoners are screened in addition to the film that inspired the theme,” Bchini said. “Workshops start inside prison by screening a film and inviting prisoners to reflect on the theme of the film and express their opinions about it in film format.”
Detainees in Mahdia prison attended workshops on film-making in a programme that began in March 2015. Films were produced reflecting the prisoners’ vision. By debating the films in public screenings, civil society members endeavour to build a bridge between prisons and the outside world.
“It is not about prison explicitly but it is based on the views and thoughts of people in prison and how they see the world outside,” Regaya said. “We don’t work on documentaries. We specifically work on films that belong to art video genre.”
Kais Soltani, spokesman of Tunisian Prison and Rehabilitation Institution, said the significance of the project was that prisoners presented and debated their films in public.
“We also made the choice of involving people who are sentenced to life terms in prison. We made sure they are the ones who go to attend the screening and present their films at the movie theatre downtown,” Soltani said.
“We noted a change in their behaviour even the way they talk among each other and with prison guards. We took the risk of getting them out three to four times outside prisons. For some, it was the first time they were at a movie theatre.”
In addition to being taught technical aspects of film-making, prisoners were invited to reflect on their feelings.
“When we started, they thought they would be acting or they would be the subject of a documentary and rejected the idea,” Regaya said. “We wanted to break the routine they live in and in the first days they liked the idea and, bit by bit, they understood the concept and managed to take part in the creation of these films.”
He added: “I concentrated on something they are not used to. We worked on the feelings they had; the feelings they expressed. Each of them gave a scene in which they expressed a feeling and they learnt how to hold a camera and edit. They started giving their opinions of the scenes and asked to reshoot some scenes.”
The films were shown to the rest of the detainees in the prison in March.
“Around 100 prisoners attended the screening, which they found a bit perplexing,” Regaya said. “Many of them said they didn’t understand the idea but they grasped the feeling, which was positive because that is what films are about — the feelings.”
Organisers said projects within prisons can establish alternative correctional approaches.
“Prisoners should produce creative ideas and most importantly a different idea of themselves. They don’t look at themselves the same anymore. There was one prisoner who said his mother told him he talks differently now and that he sounds well-mannered. Even the prison guards noticed the difference,” Regaya said.
“There was a prisoner who said that every week he would cause a fight just to go to the solitary cell. Since the programme started, he stopped doing that because he wanted to attend the workshops. The guards started talking to him about workshops and discussing what he learnt.”
As the project nears its completion in September, there are questions whether it achieved its goals and whether it should continue. The Tunisian Prison and Rehabilitation Institution expressed willingness to encourage other such projects.
“We would like to expand the project to other prisons and involve more associations in this project. Prisoners are Tunisian citizens who have a right to culture, to education and to reform,” Soltani said.
“Tunisia is built by all of its citizens, including the prisoners, who are entitled to have a say in our society. Prisoners surprised us in their work in these workshops. They are talented when given a chance. They make creativity out of pain.”