New documentary on Colombian prison hip hop reveals the power of beats behind bars.

New documentary on Colombian prison hip hop reveals the power of beats behind bars.

Doing time anywhere is tough, but especially in Latin America. The majority of prisoners on the continent have to deal with overcrowding, poor conditions, and there are regular cases of human rights abuses. But filmmaker Simon Rasing was lucky enough to be given permission to film in one of the region’s few success stories. Over two months he went inside Colombia’s Distrital prison, where the emphasis is placed upon rehabilitation, and inmates have the opportunity to take part in workshops that provide them with the skills they need once they leave prison. Simon focussed on three characters, Alma Negra, New York and DJ Roky, who used hip hop as a way to express themselves and share their stories with others so that they could learn from their mistakes. Hip-Hop, my release, which was Simon’s final project as a student in Manchester, has been nominated for the student award at the One World Media Awards, taking place in London on Tuesday, May 6th.

How did you first hear about Colombian prison hip hop and how did you get access to that world?
I saw it in a photo essay by a Colombian photojournalist and thought it could be a really interesting subject for a documentary. I tried to arrange access from the UK but didn’t have much luck. At one point I decided to just take the risk and go out there. On my second day in Colombia I called the prison and eventually got to ask the director for a meeting to talk about making a documentary about hip hop in his prison. He was really open and excited about it. He loved the idea of showing a more positive side to prison life. The prison’s hip hop project was set up because the director had a strong focus on allowing prisoners to better themselves. After I got permission things moved really fast. They gave me a card that allowed me into the prison every day without any problems. From then on, I was able to walk around by myself with my camera and film almost whatever I wanted to film.

How do the conditions in the prison you shot at compare to others in the region?
Prison overcrowding is a huge problem in Latin America. Most prisons have bad resources, provide poor conditions for prisoners and commit human rights violations. Although gaining media access to prisons like this is difficult, the world has already seen these conditions multiple times. But the prison I shot at in Colombia was different, and served as an example of how it might be possible to change prisons in Latin America. It was called Distrital, and located in the capital, Bogota. It houses lower level offenders, people who haven’t committed a murder, so people feel they might deserve a second chance. They offer the prisoners workshops so that they can do something positive after being released. I liked opportunity to show something different to what most people expect to see in that context, and instead focus on a positive example where there are efforts made to help these guys. Reoffending rates are huge across the region because little effort is made at rehabilitation. I don’t believe in locking people up in prisons and leaving them for years, it just doesn’t work. We need to offer them something to help change their paths.

How much of a role does hip hop play in that process?
I wasn’t particularly involved in hip hop before I made this film. I listened to it, liked it, but that was about it. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film, was to learn about the importance of hip hop, especially for marginalised people, such as prisoners, and how it influences them personally. Writing lyrics forces them to think about their situation and what they’ve done. It releases them from their stress and frustration, but as DJ Roky says in the film, in a peaceful way, not with guns anymore or by hurting people. Hip hop enables them to express their feelings and gives them a platform to share their stories with the world. They have important stories to tell, especially for people who find themselves in similar situations, on the verge of committing a crime, or frustrated, without knowing how to channel those feelings. These guys have been there, learned from it and are now trying to change their lives by showing there’s another way. Hopefully this film can give them an even bigger platform to share their story with as many people as possible.

What were the challenges in making the film?
I decided to go into the prison every day to show I was interested in them and that I was serious about the project, but walking around in prison with a camera isn’t easy. There are a lot of people who don’t want to be filmed. So I needed to make sure everybody knew that I was there, so I was always asking permission. Dealing with guards can be difficult, because I had the authority of the director to film but the guards feel they own the prison. Despite all the planning, there were times when the guards would come in and say, ‘you have to leave right now,’ without any explanation. You have to be aware of your surroundings and be very patient to be able to make anything happen.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility towards the guys you filmed?
I wanted to tell their stories right and do them justice. I was in constant conversation with them, asking what I could film, what they would be comfortable with, etc. I had to always make sure I wasn’t taking advantage of them, and inform them every time. I wanted to make sure that we were making the film together. I think that was the biggest responsibility that I felt, to try and include them at all times and tell their stories with integrity. But if that meant every now and again I had to confront them with a tough question, that’s part of it as well. I didn’t want to promise them anything I couldn’t deliver, so being honest and open about my intentions was the most important thing for me.

What were the lessons?
I learned that it’s really important to try to include everybody. You hear very little about prisoners in the news so it’s easy to ignore them. I think it’s important for these guys to be heard and included, because they are one of the most excluded groups in society. You never see them, which is weird because at some point they’ll come back and rejoin society. If you want to make sure they’ll cope with the real world and stop reoffending, then we need to be more open towards them, listen to them, rather than ignoring them. They’ve made mistakes, but above all, they are human beings. The situation in Colombia is incredibly complex. It’s suffered decades of war and there are deep social problems like poverty, inequality and political corruption. You don’t steal food to get rich, you steal food to survive.

How do you feel the film will have an impact?
I hope people will be open to what they’re seeing and maybe start thinking about the issues. I’m not hoping to change anything, but I hope that people will see how these guys are genuine and trying hard to work on their talent to make sure they’re ready to be released and won’t reoffend. I hope that it opens peoples eyes as to how you treat prisoners and how you deal with them once they’re released.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m currently working on two projects that I began while I was still studying. One of them is about a disabled swimmer, and the other is about a father and daughter who have both won the same ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) title.

To find out more about the film, head over to Hip-Hop, my release or check out the One World Media Awards, taking place in London on Tuesday, May 6th.