Producing Your Way Out of a Problem: Getting Personal with Prisoners
It happened in one of Ukrainian's high-security prisons. The cast were all inmates, not actors. The prisoners were people with especial desperate and heart-breaking stories. It was the most interesting project to produce - every single shot had its unique story!
Our budget was extremely limited and working in a prison was a one of a kind experience, the biggest challenge we’ve ever had. We spent three long days in the middle of nowhere surrounded by prisoners, and learned a lot.
Our aim was to break some stereotypes about places of imprisonment and the people who are there. To get into their world and to hear their stories. At the same time, we understood that it's a huge responsibility and was quite nerve wrecking.
After all the negotiations, the government offered us to film in a penitentiary colony in the Kiev region with around 600 prisoners. The maximum term of imprisonment there is 15 years. The severity of crimes differed from robbery to murder.
Together with a local forensic psychologist, we started pre-production. The psychologist talked a lot about the individual approach to each of the men, explained us the nuances of the local body language and the common rules among prisoners. We were also shown the territory of the prison and got acquainted with the main locations for filming.
To say that our visit surprised the inmates would be an understatement. They were shocked. After discussing the idea and prison’s rules, we took a decision to do one day of recce and three days of shooting.
The casting process was one of the biggest challenges. First of all because we didn’t know anyone and we weren't trusted by the inmates. We had to choose 12 main characters. It was agreed in advance that only those who want to take part in the filming will take part in the casting process. In addition, we avoided questions about their criminal cases, how and why they got here. Our task was to gain the trust of these guys, to evoke sincere emotions in them.
When the casting began, about 50 people gathered near the assembly hall. It was interesting for everyone, but not everyone could take part in the project according to 'the prison's criminal code'.
We called them one by one, put them in front of the camera and asked some questions about their dreams, values and lives. We were interested in three emotions: joy, anger/aggression and indifference.
Paradoxically, one in three prisoners dreamed of becoming a theatre or film actor, one in two spoke of love for family, but none could express emotion, even if they really wanted to. They seemed to have 'turned off' the ability to feel the range of emotions as soon as they crossed the threshold of the prison.
The prisoners, though restrained, were genuinely sincere. In turn, their words caused a flurry of emotions within each of us. You couldn't make up the stories which happened to these guys even if you were an excellent writer.
One of the detainees said that life in prison was very cruel, so after the first six months people stopped feeling anything: physical pain, fear, anger, joy - anything.
"You exist and count down your term in days, trying not to get into conflicts with your brother, so as not to be killed again morally or physically."
However, I realised that the people sitting across from us were people just like you and me. They had just made a big mistake, after which society deleted them from its ranks forever, giving them horrible labels.
The film crew immediately dispelled the myth of the 'scary prison'. We gathered a strong team of actors. Each one was unique.
There were inmate leaders who organised everyone else. I called them 'local producers'. The boys liked the filming process: they gave it their best, built sets with their own hands, painted the sea blue and helped the film crew.
The prisoners tried to talk to us to tell us about themselves, to learn more about us. In the last days of filming, the boys could not help but smile and rejoice. They admitted that the last time they were this happy was (for some) fifteen years ago!
The communication was somewhat difficult because some of our foreign film crew did not understand Russian or Ukrainian. There were situations where it was necessary to react immediately to avoid conflict.
Our 1st AD (Alexei Savelov) did a huge job: he was a psychologist, translator and best friend for each of the detainees. They allowed him to come closer into their community, where they have very strict rules, and allowed him to be in charge.
At some point, we all realised that filming had become a holiday for them, and we wanted them to feel that atmosphere for as long as possible. At the end of the last day of filming, we gathered in the assembly hall, where it all began, and for about an hour we talked and laughed - some even cried.
Two weeks after the filming, the head of the prison called us and said that many of the boys were unrecognisable: their behaviour, social and moral attitudes had changed. Some of them found a new goal.
Our production team decided to help them and supply them with winter clothes and visit them from time to time.
It was quite comforting to know that the location fees we paid the prison for the filming was spent on building materials and renovating the prison building. Everything was transparent and all purchases were made together with the head of the penitentiary colony.
As challenging as this project was for me, I am grateful to have had this experience and realised that our crime against criminals lies in the fact that we treat them like rascals.
Dasha Deriagina, head of music 23/32 Films, Ukraine