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Feature 04 Jan 16

Belgrade’s Convict Actors Find Freedom Behind Bars

Prisoners in Belgrade are staging plays as part of a project to lift the everyday gloom of jailhouse life through artistic expression and prepare them for rehabilitation.

Sasa Dragojlo
BIRN
Belgrade
Inmates who played the characters 'Sir Oliver' and 'Number One' in the 'Alan Ford' play| Photo: Aleksandar Djordjevic

Around 12 inmates were dancing, crying and laughing on a stage in one of the court rooms at Belgrade County Prison as they acted out a scene from a play based on a cult Italian comicbook.

In the audience at the impromptu ‘theatre’ last week, some of their fellow inmates fell about, splitting their sides with laughter as they enjoyed the show - a sign that the performance had, at least temporarily, eased the tedium of prison life.

The play, entitled ‘Alan Ford’, based on the comicbook series about secret agents which was highly popular in the former Yugoslavia, was the second such performance by prisoners organised by an NGO called the Centre for Rehabilitation with Imagination.

Marina Kovacevic, the director of the play and the head of the Centre for Rehabilitation with Imagination, said that taking part was a way for prisoners to become socially rehabilitated in a creative and liberating way.

Marina Kovacevic, director of the play with some of the actors | Photo: Aleksandar Djordjevic

“This type of working with inmates is some sort of drama therapy and my goal was to make something where the prisoners are having fun and becoming socially free,” Kovacevic told BIRN.

“I wanted to help them cure in a way, because art can be a strong medicine,” she added.

Kovacevic began her “prison art therapy” in September 2015 with a performance of ‘Notes from Cell Number 12’, based on the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which was held at the Dom Omladine cultural centre in Belgrade.

But last week’s performance was the first time that the prisoners performed a play for their fellow inmates alone.

One of the actors, 33-year old Bojan Veljkovic, who has been serving a sentence for theft for more than a year now, said that acting was his way out of prison depression.

“This really helps. It makes me not think about problems and about the fact that I’m locked up in prison. When I’m at rehearsals for the play… I’m somewhere else, having fun and laughing,” Veljkovic told BIRN.

“The two hours when I’m not in the cell it means the world to me,” he said.

Long hours on lockdown

Marko Spadijer, another of the actors, will “celebrate” two years in Belgrade County Prison in two months’ time.

He told BIRN that he never even dreamed of acting in a play before.

“All of us in jail are here because we made mistakes and we are paying for it, but this type of work in particular is the essence of resocialisation,” Spadijer said.

“Unfortunately, you only realise that when you are already here,” he added.

The impromptu 'stage' in the prison courtroom | Photo: Aleksandar Djordjevic

There are currently 1,094 inmates in the County Prison and they are locked up in their cells for 24 hours a day, apart from when they are having their meals and or their hour-long daily recreational walk.

Usually there are between seven and 12 inmates in each cell.

Bojan Veljkovic is supposed to get out of prison in June if everything goes right. However, he has another trial awaiting which could see him cut off from the outside world for five or six more years.

“It is for stealing and shoplifting… I went down the wrong path,” he said.

Veljkovic explained that it is very hard to get back to normal life when you are a convicted criminal, as your record makes it difficult to find a regular job.

“Employers are checking your ID and trying to see if you have a police record. Sometimes, they even ask you to give them an official document from the police yourself to prove you were not in jail. It’s pretty discouraging,” Veljkovic said.

He added that it was almost impossible to find anyone in the County Prison who is not a ‘returnee’.

Robin Hood in reverse

In the ‘Alan Ford’ play, the anti-hero is called Superhik (‘Super Drunk’) - a sort of Robin Hood in reverse who steals from the poor to give to the rich.

Spadijer thinks that the play’s message about contemporary society is that it is not always clear who the criminal is today.

“Everyone can end up in jail for something… sometimes the biggest criminals are not even in jail, but in high-class positions,” he said.

Both Spadijer and Veljkovic are determined not to return to the criminal world after their release.

Spadijer has genuine hopes of rehabilitation because he has a job lined up for after he leaves prison.

“I am engaged in community work now and I’m someone who is determined not to be a criminal personality anymore... I already have a job offer from some NGO and I will be useful again,” he said.

Veljkovic said he thinks this is his last chance to get back to a normal life and that acting is helping him to focus on and analyse his situation.

“I want to see what I can make of my life after jail,” he insisted. “I’m saying to myself: ‘Idiot, how long will you continue to drag yourself from prison to prison?’”

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