Documentary Behind Bars: Tell Me Your Story

Untold stories. Important stories that instantly move anyone who sees them. Stories told by young people who made mistakes, whose bad decisions ultimately led to a prison sentence at the Avlona Youth Detention Center and an ongoing effort to course correct and, later on, reintegrate themselves into society.

Exile Room’s “Tell Me Your Story”, an innovative documentary workshop series that took place behind bars in collaboration with KETHEA STROFI, afforded inmates aged 18-26 the opportunity to talk about their daily lives on their own terms. For the first time ever, they got to film fragments of their own reality and take charge of their story. The workshops took place from March to December 2017 and instigated a dialogue between the inmates and the society at large. Dimitris Koutsiabasakos, an award-winning documentary filmmaker with vast teaching experience under his belt, was the key instructor.

“I appreciate Exile Room’s social outreach in the documentary realm and education in general,” he said in a recent conversation. “I follow their work and I have the pleasure of knowing founder Valerie Kontakos and her close collaborators, Despina Pavlaki and Thanassis Patsavos, personally and I was happy to be involved”. The main concern of this initiative was to really place the camera in the hands of the inmates, who have had many stories told about them, but have never had the chance to make their own voices heard. But, before they engaged with the practicalities of filmmaking, they had to learn some basic theory: “It was a very powerful experience on every level,” says Koutsiabasakos. “First off, I was very surprised at how smart, sensitive and capable most of those boys really were. The way they absorbed and interpreted information was incredible. Teaching within the confines of a detention center certainly makes you think about a lot of things, mainly the reasons that drove them behind bars in the first place. What are the sociological parameters of their trajectory and what kind of living conditions do they have to suffer once they get there?”

“On the other hand, I was quite focused on capturing their attention and engaging them in the filmmaking process,” noted the instructor. “Once they knew I had no ulterior motive and nothing to hide, I won them over pretty easily. Essentially, I was there to talk to them about their own reality, I just wanted to do it in a different way.” Once documentary theory was out of the way, the inmates had to structure their narrative. The shooting process was an adventure, as the participants weren’t allowed to shoot outside the KETHEA STROFI headquarters, i.e. the rooms especially allotted to them by the prison, so they had to get very creative. “Despite the restrictions, the boys exhibited great imagination and maturity,” says Koutsiabasakos. The editing process was lead by editors Christos Giannakopoulos and Giorgos Savoglou, who offered valuable insight on how to organise and piece together the footage shot during the workshop.

“Tell me Your Story” was a first attempt at instigating a public dialogue on marginalisation and confinement, breaking stereotypes and facilitating reintegration into society. “When you watch the inmates’ films and listen to their concerns, it’s easy to see they truly deserve a second chance,” says Dimitris Koutsiabasakos. So go ahead and watch the short documentary below (one of many they made) and make sure you’re part of the solution, instead of the problem. We’ll be right there with you…

“Tell Me Your Story” was designed and implemented by Exile Room with the cooperation of the Avlona Youth Detention Center and KETHEA STROFI (the non residential therapeutic program for adolescents drug users).

The program was made possible with the financial support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

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