Greenlight District Project's Class of 2014
Greenlight District Project's Class of 2014 show off their certificates of progress and achievement at the end of their awards ceremony. (Photo: Greenlight District Project)

Rudo Mungoshi attends a creative class in an extraordinary setting, Meredale Correctional Facility, where offenders are finding their voice and discovering hope through the medium of writing for film.

The stony-faced Corrections Officer brusquely pats our bodies to check for any dangerous objects concealed in our clothing. Then we are waved through a metal detector entrance way leading into a passage.

We have entered Meredale Correctional Facility, south of Johannesburg. I am with the Pippa Dyer to attend one of her weekly classes in Film and Creative Writing for male offenders.

Dyer, who has spent the last year three years teaching this course, is the tireless co-ordinator behind the Greenlight District Project and founder of the Greenlight Foundation, a national non-profit organisation that equips inmates with creative writing skills geared for filmmaking.

The classroom, fitted with wooden benches, is empty when we arrive, but we do not have long to wait for the students. The class opens with a lively discussion on The Accused, a hard-hitting rape-themed drama the group recently watched, with a few late arrivals hurrying to take their places and join in.

I am pleasantly surprised by how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere is, with plenty of good-natured laughter mixed with banter as the inmates share their impressions of the film.'

'This course has given me hope of life beyond bars'

The entire awards ceremony was organised by the students themselves
The entire awards ceremony - from decorations and entertainment down to the frames for the certificates - was organised by the students themselves. (Photo: Greenlight District Project)

Later I strike up a conversation with Joseph Totopooi, a 38-year-old serving out his third sentence behind bars. Doing the course, he says, has given him hope of a life beyond prison.

"I started to think of myself differently," Totopooi says. "The course kind of saved my life."

Totopooi has spent his late teens, 20s and most of his 30s behind bars. He says the last time he celebrated Christmas out of jail was in 1996. Stuck in prison, he felt himself becoming more and more stressed; his life was "going nowhere".

"However, this course has helped me express everything that I have bottled up. My grammar has changed, including the way I speak English. I am now able to relate to people, something that I was not able to do in the past."

Totopooi's wasn't much of a childhood. He grew up in Alexandra under alcoholic parents who constantly fought and often abused him.

"It affected me badly and made me become fearful of life. I ended getting involved in criminal activities."

Now, he says, he is resolved to change his life. He treasures the regular assignments he is given in the classes; they keep him focused and help him forget about the stresses of prison life.

'Now I am reminded that I have potential'

Greenlight Foundation founder and CEO Pippa Dyer
Greenlight Foundation founder and CEO Pippa Dyer speaks at the awards ceremony. (Photo: Greenlight District Project)

Totopooi has also noticed the difference in fellow classmates, saying they too project more energy and enthusiasm.

"We were handicapped because of our former life," he says. "The course enhances one's self-worth, but it also prepares us for that potential return to society."

Bongani Zulu, another student of Dyer's, expresses similar sentiments, saying the programme has helped boost his self-esteem.

"At first I doubted my capabilities, but now I am reminded that I have potential that I didn't know about before," says Zulu.

Dyer started the filmmaking and creative writing course in 2014. She had recently lost her job at film, television and performance school AFDA, and saw an opportunity to impart some of her skills to inmates.

"I was inspired to start this project after I was invited by a former inmate to attend a graduation ceremony inside the correctional facility in 2013," she says. "While attending the ceremony I realised that there might be people inside who might need skills, and it dawned on me that I could possibly help."

Dyer approached the authorities at Meredale with her proposal, and a year later was offered a contract to teach there.

'I realized they are just people who made bad choices'

Pippa Dyer outside Southgate Mall
"There so much fear about offenders. There is a need to demystify them so that we get to understand them better" - Pippa Dyer outside Southgate Mall. (Photo: Rudo Mungoshi)

"I was very scared when I started teaching in the prison, but once I got to know the students better, I realised that they were amazing people who just made bad choices in life. I have not seen a person that does not want to change their lives."

She was particularly touched when one of her students assured her that he would protect her if anything untoward were to happen.

She offers a two-year programme, with certificates for participants who successfully complete it. Her class studies 20 "master plots" and learns how to build a story effectively, from opening sequence through crisis to resolution, while establishing characters and plotting the story's direction through the characters.

Dyer believes her Meredale experience has helped her grow spiritually and find fulfilment in life.

"I was a broken person, but teaching to the inmates helped me heal quickly. The whole experience has made me feel worthy and valuable. I also feel good that I am doing something for South Africa."

The benefits are plain to see: improved attitudes, people who start to have hope, many for the first time in their lives.

'It gives offenders a voice to express themselves with'

Greenlight Foundation board chairperson Ashley du Plooy
Greenlight Foundation board chairperson Ashley du Plooy congratulates one of the student achievers. (Photo: Greenlight District Project)

"I never ask the offender what they are in form, and I am not there to judge them, but what I always tell them is that writing is a soul journey and a self-actualising process."

The most important thing the course give prisoners is a voice with which to express themselves. It can be very powerful therapy. And besides the therapeutic benefits of writing, Dyer has seen a lot of improved communication skills.

"This course has so much to offer students. It opens their mind to other possibilities and develops attributes such as critical thinking and enables them to deal with their own personal substances and grow spiritually, morally and intellectually. It helps them work through their own stuff and look at choices they made in the past and re-evaluate."

Her goal at the moment is to get funding to shoot some of the stories that have been written, for showcasing at a festival at which the public can see the kind of work that offenders are capable of producing.

"There so much fear about offenders. There is a need to demystify them so that we get to understand them better."

'Some of them are beginning to think like artists'

Dyer has been overwhelmed by some of the stories her students have written.

"The majority of the inmates write mostly about love, especially about girlfriends and wives who have left them and mothers who have died while they were in prison."

Among her favourite are a story about a gardener who finds a bag of money in the garden and wrestles with his conscience over whether to keep the money for himself or not, and another about a woman who does not know to swim who has to get across a river.

However, there are rules her students have to observe when writing their stories. "I do not allow them to use guns, extreme violence or sex in their stories. I clip their wings quite a lot, and encourage them to think out the box.

"When they are challenged they create fabulous stories. Some of them are beginning to think like artists."

As with any project, the course comes with its challenges, which include a lack of finance for material such as stationery, textbooks and DVDs. Dyer largely self-funds the project, although she has recently received some assistance from the Gauteng Film Commission.

She won't be held back. She's planning to start a class for female offenders this year, and depending on how that goes, will look at introducing the course in other correctional facilities.

There's also potential for creating similar courses for communities outside of prison, such as youth living in areas affected by unemployment and crime. If there's possibility in Meredale, she believes, there's possibility anywhere.