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Every year, prisoners across Russia dream of taking part in the annual Kalina Krasnaya Prison Song Contest.

It is open to all of Russia's approximately 700,000 prisoners and thousands of applications are submitted each year.

They all end up with the contest's director, Natalia Abashkina, a woman for whom Kalina Krasnaya has become an all-consuming passion.

"It's my life, my destiny, my love," she explains.

In fact, each participant at Kalina keeps his problems locked up deep inside ... When he finally goes on stage and publicly expresses remorse for his actions, then he admits to everyone that he is a criminal. And that is a major step for him.

Natalia Abashkina, director, Kalina Krasnaya Prison Song Contest

The first round of the contest takes place in the penal colonies. From there, the best songs are selected and presented to the district administration. Those that make it through that stage, come before the Arts Council in Moscow, which chooses the finalists.

Just 25 to 35 make it.

Of being chosen to perform at the final, Sergei Chumichev, a prisoner serving 12 years for murder, explains: "It's as if you're released into freedom."

But performing isn't always easy.

"What happens at Kalina is probably impossible to understand at a glance," says Natalia. "It looks like a nice concert. Songs are sung, right?

"But, in fact, each participant at Kalina keeps his problems locked up deep inside. He only reveals them to those who are closest to him … When he finally goes on stage and publicly expresses remorse for his actions, then he admits to everyone that he is a criminal. And that is a major step for him."

The idea, contest producer Viachislav Klimenkov explains, is simple: "You cannot take hope away from anybody."

It's a concept that makes sense to Sergei Abraham, a prisoner serving 20 years for murder and armed robbery who says he grew up "with a guitar, a motorbike and a sawed-off shotgun".

Music and art are an enormous help. It invigorates a person and helps him stand up in difficult times.

Sergei Abraham, Russian prisoner

"Music and art are an enormous help," he says. "It invigorates a person and helps him stand up in difficult times."

For Natalia, providing support to these prisoners and nurturing their talent is a vocation that few seem to understand.

A Tale of Singers and Murderers follows her as she travels across the country, visiting its penal colonies, meeting the prisoners she befriends along the way and discovering just what the contest means to them.

At the end of each contest, prisoners, organisers and audience sing the song 'Kalina Krasnaya' [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

FILMMAKER'S VIEW

By Stefan Eberlein

When I first started to work on this film in 2010, relations between Russia and my country, Germany, were good. But by the time we started filming in 2014, everything had changed.

Russia had annexed the Crimea and the region seemed on the brink of a new Cold War.

I had hoped to explore Russia's mysterious penal colonies, but Western Europeans were suddenly banned from accessing them. It seemed as though our project was about to fall apart.

But then something amazing happened: the larger the crisis, the closer we began to work with our Russian colleagues on the film.

We formed a local team that filmed in the colonies, and Viachislav Klimenko, the organiser of the contest, lent us his support.

At the beginning of our collaboration, he had mistrusted me, afraid that we would characterise the contest as government propaganda, as Western media had in the past. He had enough critics in his own country to worry about; people who believed that criminals didn't deserve the opportunity to perform on a stage like the one Kalina Krasnaya offered them.

But Viachislav appreciated our determination not to give up and was able to reopen the doors to the penal colonies that had been closed to us.

We became close friends and our friendship - which ran so contrary to the relations between our countries - became the foundation upon which A Tale of Singers and Murderers was built.

Maxim Kust is a singer and songwriter participating in the Kalina Krasnaya Prison Song Contest [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera