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Crowned the best world documentary at this year’s Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival, “Fonja’s” journey to the screen is an extraordinary story of perseverance and motivation in the most challenging of conditions.

The film is directed by Germany’s Lina Zacher and 10 young prisoners – Ravo Henintsoa Andrianatoandro, Lovatiana Desire Santatra, Sitraka Hermann Ramanamokatra, Jean Chrisostome Rakotondrabe, Erick Edwin Andrianamelona, Elani Eric Rakotondrasoa, Todisoa Niaina Sylvano Randrialalaina, Sitrakaniaina Raharisoa, Adriano Raharison Nantenaina and Alpha Adrimamy Fenotoky – who are incarcerated in the largest detention center in Madagascar and who took part in a film workshop run by Zacher.

Zacher, 28, had first volunteered at the center in 2013, running a theater workshop. Taken by the energy and drive of the kids at the institution, she returned for three months in 2017 to run a film workshop while studying arts education at Germany’s Burg Giebichenstein university of art and design.

With two cameras donated by Fuji, she spent three weeks teaching the kids film history, and then the basics of filming – from camera settings to framing.

After that, the kids started to take over, coming up with their own ideas for filming and organizing themselves. “Over time, I became more like an assistant – that was the point I wanted to get to, so I could always be in the background,” says Zacher.

Initially, they wanted to create fiction stories, perhaps as a way to escape the limited nature of their surroundings.

“Their situation is the same every day, with only four walls. I tried to teach them to observe, and to observe the small things,” says Zacher. “In the end I was really proud that they got to this point where they found fascination in the details and small movements, maybe things you wouldn’t detect on first view.”

Zacher returned to Germany with over five terabytes of data from the filming, which included scenes from inside the cramped, overcrowded prison as well as interviews with the boys themselves.

The footage showed the kids in all their complexity – as young vulnerable boys, many of them orphans, with unimaginably hard childhoods but who also give harrowing accounts of the crimes they have committed, from pickpocketing, through to breaking and entry, robbery at gunpoint, assault and child rape. The boys themselves openly discuss the crimes, showing themselves to be simultaneously ashamed but also keen to brag to establish their place in the complex pecking order inside the prison.

Zacher admits to feeling overwhelmed, both by some of the content and the amount of footage. “I almost decided I could not continue,” reflects Zacher. “There was so much material, I spent days and nights going through it and sorting it.”

But she wanted to go back, returning for three months in November 2018 to teach them how to edit. Zacher says this was perhaps the most important phase of the project as it was in the edit that “Fonja” really started to become their film.

Zacher says she really wanted the film to convey the energy, motivation and skills of the kids in the prison, and not to just focus on the very bad living conditions. She also hopes that some of them may be able to use the knowledge they have gained to work in film after their release.

“Fonja,” she adds, was also about letting the kids express their creativity, and to do it themselves in the most authentic way. “Most of the time, a documentary filmmaker comes to an unknown place, does some research and then films,” says Zacher. “But it is always from the perspective of the filmmaker.”

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