The next generation of criminals, a wasted youth and the emotional chaos of being an incarcerated teenager.
Serbian born, Brooklyn based film director Jovan Todorovic lived inside the Balkans’ largest juvenile correctional facility for his short film, Juvenile. An entire year obtaining permits to shoot inside the facility resulted in an incredibly raw look at teenage life as a young offender behind bars, with cinematography so slick it looks like he cast the characters and set the scenes himself. Also incredibly talented behind all lenses, Todorovic’s photography is nostalgic, beautiful, and perfectly explores one of his favourite phrases, ‘youth is wasted on the young.’
Why did you start this project, Juvenile, in the first place?
I was always irritated by how documentary films just look like shit. With the cameras we’ve got and the styles that have evolved, why don’t we have this contemporary style that us, young people, react to visually and emotionally? We lost the cinematic part of them.
A friend who worked for this Norwegian fund that financed and helped the juvenile prison system in Serbia introduced me to the right people. I’m Serbian so it helps, but it did take me about a year to get all the permits and everything I needed. I didn’t want to talk about politics, to show how Serbia is a fucked up place and how western democracy is something that we need, I don’t want to talk about prison guards molesting kids. I just want to make something that is my very personal, visual and emotional response to what I live through there.
I had all the permits to film but I couldn’t use any of it unless I had every kid sign a release form. My idea was that by living and sleeping there with them, I’m not just a journalist who comes and visits for an hour, shoots and leaves. So after five or six days they were like ‘who are these idiots that actually want to live here with us?’ We slowly got to them and they got to us too. I had zero signatures and 40 hours of footage, so I edited the small teaser to show them, but some of the kids had already been let out of prison, so I had to travel Serbia for ten days to find the kids that had been released. One of them who was a dealer, was dealing while I’m showing him this trailer. The song is very soft and emotional and I’m like ‘oh they’re gonna say this is cheesy.’ But they all supported it and gave me their signatures.
Was it hard to connect with these tough kids?
Yeah, it’s amazing how perception changes. The first time I was there they had us walk around like an exhibition, a zoo. They look at you like they wanna kill you, they look really tough. Even though you’re ten years older than them you’re like, ‘shit this is scary, how am I gonna do this?’ I remember thinking ‘you just gotta keep on staring, don’t look down otherwise you’ll be a pussy.’
Very quickly the kids come out of it. They’re very manipulative, they know how to get your emotional side. They’ll tell you a story and you’re like ‘oh that’s so sad,’ and you fall for it, but that’s not how it is. You can’t pity them or feel sad for them, you just gotta come down to their level and be straight but not be strict with them. Not look at them like poor kids with problems or bad guys with issues, just look at them as they are.
One big thing that they learn in prison is that it doesn’t matter who you were before prison, because no one knows what you did, not even the guards. It only matters who you are now and if you lie and steal, they’re gonna figure it out and place you adequately within their internal social system to where you belong. They’ll see through all the shit, and it’s an amazing school of life in that sense.
Do you think it works similar to an adult prison, as in many learn to perfect the criminal trade in there?
They were all sitting in this amphitheatre room and I realised, this is our next generation of criminals, just like film school or dentist school. As in every school, you’re gonna have kids who’ll become very good at what they do, meaning they will be efficient criminals, ones who will definitely change occupations, ones who still want to be criminals but aren’t good for it and ones who don’t want to be, but are good for it. It’s just like any other occupation in that sense.
What’s the deal with the boy girl separation in the prison?
There’s like 250 boys and maybe 20 or 30 girls and they’re in separate buildings. They don’t really have direct contact except New Year’s Eve, but they can pass notes, maybe steal a kiss at the fence. All the prison guards say that working with the boys is easy, compared to the girls. The boys you know where you stand with them but the girls are just emotional hell and chaos. But for me being with the girls was one of the most emotionally engaging and satisfying relationships. Sometimes they drive you crazy, they’re kids you know, and sometimes you’re just like I don’t know how to deal with this.
Did you have any favourites?
Aniko, the one breakdancing at the end is the most honest person ever, which can obviously be a problem. I’ve got scenes where she talks about how the guard’s hit her for whatever reasons and she was like “Wow I really needed that.” When you’re in there, you can’t judge the kids based on what they did. Because on one level they don’t know what they did and on another level they do.
They all radiate this very melancholic, nostalgic wisdom of life. They’re sad and melancholic for a time that is coming to them in the future, but that they already know has been destroyed to some extent. It’s a very painful idea. That’s the essence of the quote, ‘youth is wasted on the young,’ and I think about it a lot, is that only when you waste your youth, is when you realise it. That is how we live. And these kids are young, but they’ve wasted it already, so at a very early age they become aware of it and it’s a very heavy emotion to deal with.
What about your photography, your photos give off a very similar nostalgic vibe?
Melancholy and nostalgia are my main emotions, like listening to Lana Del Rey or something. I’m very distanced and formal, so I had to learn how to impregnate emotions into a visual code. That’s where I create the atmosphere and emotional filter. Photography is really important because I shoot daily and then explore ways to translate that into film.