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Stefan Đorđević

What is life like in a Serbian young offenders institution?

Watch new documentary Juvenile, which was filmed in the largest juvenile correctional facility in the Balkans, exclusively on Dazed

Being young today often seems to hold more fear than hope. This atmosphere of despondency is particularly prevalent in the largest juvenile correctional facility in the Balkans, where Jovan Todorovic and his crew filmed the lives of the minors that have been forgotten and sidelined by Serbian society. Juvenile, which we're premiering on Dazed, documents life within a correctional facility for the young adults and children who've been sent there. For these young people, who range in age from 14-23, the outside world can recede into an unfamiliar place – particularly given that the longest court sentence that can be imposed is four years, a lifetime for any restless young person who dreams of freedom.

Juvenile communicates the monotony and hopelessness of a life lived removed from the outside world while showing how youth is a universal concept, with the hopes and fears of the minors within the facility being no different to those who live outside of it. But for all that the subject matter might appear at first bleak – particularly given the uncompromising visuals of the post-Soviet correctional facility itself – Juvenile is a hopeful film. Watching it, you believe that there might be a positive resolution and some sort of redemption for these teenagers, many of whom hold on to religion as a way of processing the reality of their life within the centre. 

Though many of the young people portrayed in the film are likely to never fully escape a life of crime, Juvenile maintains a candid and honest approach. This is a film in which the young people are allowed to speak for themselves, given a voice without editorialising and judgement. We see them playing, telling Jesus-as-a-pothead jokes, smoking incessantly (almost all the young people seem to permanently have a cigarette in hand, which underscores the reality that much like those in adult correctional facilities, often there's not much else to do but chainsmoke and dream of the outside world). In order to achieve this closeness with the young people he depicted, Todorovic and his crew spent months living within the facility. By participating in their daily lives and not letting the stories of their past saturate their portrayal in the film, Juvenile connects with the teenagers on a more intimate level. The result is as raw as it is captivating, capturing moments of dejection as much as instances of a faith and hope that even a life within a facility can’t fully extinguish.

Todorovic – who is of Serbian origin, but based in the USA – is rapidly making a name for himself as a director and photographer with a varied body of work, ranging from music videos to shorts and documentary films, with his film, ‘The Belgrade Phantom’, winning a major Serbian film award in 2009. We caught up with Todorovic over email to find out more about what it's like spending a year filming troubled teens in a Serbian correctional facility. Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for flow and clarity, and you check out our preview of Juvenile in the accompanying video.  

Hi Jovan, thanks for talking to us. What brought you to the facility?

Jovan Todorovic: A friend of mine worked with the juvenile correctional facility and one day when we were talking about the subject, I told her how I would love to do a film that’s different and would not have a typical premise. She said she could help me make it happen and we set out this year-long process of acquiring all the permits to make it happen. But these permits only got us the clearance to go inside lawfully. Only the person in front of the camera can give us the right to actually film them, show their faces or hear their voices.

How did you gain the trust of the minors you were depicting?

Jovan Todorovic: It took time. One thing that was really important to me was that we should sleep in the correctional facility as much as possible. I wanted to identify with what their everyday life looked and felt like, so I could become someone other than a visitor at a zoo. I think ultimately what gained their trust was the fact that Stefan, my fellow cinematographer, and I related and spoke the same language as the kids in there. We didn’t judge them, or treat them differently because of what they did and said, and we proclaimed this open and human dialogue that gave them a sense of worth I believe. The last time we were in there was for New Years Eve. I feel that when they saw we would rather spend it with them, in the facility, they finally accepted us completely. After that all of the kids signed the release forms so that we can show their faces and hear their voices. I mean, literally we had around 200 signatures of unanimous consent.

What do you hope the film will achieve? 

Jovan Todorovic: I wanted to create a visual journey into a world people haven’t seen or experienced before and wish to bring this very local realm to a universal and global audience. But having [the kids] like what we were doing, and having them feeling at least a little bit proud and good and cool for taking part in it was the biggest achievement so far.

George Bernard Shaw’s quote, ‘Youth is wasted on the young’, is your Instagram tagline and the first shot of ‘Juvenile’. What does this quote mean to you in the context of the film?

Jovan Todorovic: It comes down to the notion that these kids are both the wrongdoers and the victims at the same time. Youth is all about being free, loose, lost, and open… but this lack of borders or limits creates for a kind of anarchy and lack of consciousness. The process easily becomes destructive, and as I get older it feels more and more that real freedom only comes once I have my own wise borders. Once I've set a path so I know how to avoid skidding off the road. But you have to have a road in order not to turn from it. In much the same way, youth is wasted on the young, and then later we realise how we could have used it in a better and different way. But we can’t do that, and we wouldn’t think as we do unless we wasted it as we did. 

How do you think the facility changes the people within it?

Jovan Todorovic: Some find their future working partners, other become better at what they do, some realise they’re not cut out for it, others don’t realise this but still pursue the profession, and so on. I realized the juveniles in the facility are the future generation of criminals just as any other generation of students is gathered somewhere else. Some will graduate, others won’t, and it’s all part of the process. Through time, by building a better society that doesn’t need crime, we may dissolve this “occupation”, but for now it seems our world needs it unfortunately. I think the kids there all change in the sense of becoming more mature and aware of the meaning of the George Bernard Shaw’s quote. Even if they can’t put it into words, they come to understand the fragility of life on some level. I tried to capture this sense of invisible melancholy through a persistent eye.

What influence did spending nearly a year there have on you and your crew?

Jovan Todorovic: You become so much more aware of what the important and beautiful things in life are. Out in “freedom” we ignore the real value of reality. It also taught me one important thing. In the correctional facility it’s really not important what crime you committed. Everyone comes in there as if from another world, and it’s all about whom you are once you are there. It’s a very important idea. You are not who you were, but who you are in this moment, and who you want to become. It’s an empowering idea to know that you define yourself not through the past but through what you do now, today.

The film itself bears many of the same visual tropes as your photographic work (youth in urban/industrial landscapes). Was it important to you to depict the facility in a way that was somehow beautiful?

Jovan Todorovic: My idea was to make a film that is strongly visual and what I call a film of atmosphere. I very consciously went into the detention center without a premeditated premise other than my intention to observe and record the kids through a prism of my personal aesthetic approach. I'm making a film that one cannot clearly distinguish between what could be regarded as a fictional and non-fictional visual style, but that will undeniably move and touch the viewer with its bare and strong emotions.

Religion comes across quite strongly in the film - is there a sense of redemption for the young people who stay there?

Jovan Todorovic: No, I don’t see religion is linked to redemption for them. Religion is their belief that the world they were born into couldn’t be all there is to their existence.

There's often a tendency to romanticise the experience of people in the post-Soviet countries by the Western media. Is this something you've experienced yourself personally? 

Jovan Todorovic: For me it’s just a matter of iconography. The intent of my film is to dive below the surface of this visual skeleton of a post-communist country in eastern Europe and show how the inner values and ideas of these characters don’t differ from the ones held by kids in any other place on this planet. They talk about the same things. They listen to the same music. They think about love, sex, drugs, money, friends… in much the same way as their peers anywhere else.

Did any of the young people really stand out for you?

Jovan Todorovic: I'll remember all of the kids for something, but one that really stood out for me was Ranko. There's a scene in the chapel where he talks about how he was introduced to a life of drugs and crime. He's an intelligent kid, extremely polite and hard-working, but when I asked him what he'll do when he leaves the facility he said he'd probably continue with a life of crime. He told me he enjoys the rush of putting a barrel down someone's throat and feeling how seconds become minutes, of feeling that he has the power to make decisions between life and death. It made him feel alive; feel real. It's a horrific thought, but I could understand it on an emotional level – he's crying out for a world in which he wouldn't have been born on the margins of society; a social loser. 

What projects do you have planned for the future?

Jovan Todorovic: This film is an ongoing project and we’re hoping this short film will help us raise the funds to finish a feature length documentary film.