Finally got to see this documentary. It’s disturbingly brilliant.
Deeply disturbing as it focuses on the tattoos and living conditions of men, and women, in the Russian prison system—many of whom were first incarcerated when it was still the Soviet system—and on the soulfulness of their suffering.
That soulfulness might be just the resonance of my early romanticizing of Russia and its people from youthful discoveries of the Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky and Mayakovsky, two of my personal icons when I was young.
Or it may just be the result of the almost poetic English translations of the profiled prisoners’ statements, or of the deeply moving camera work that exposes through the eyes and worn faces of these prisoners, a seemingly bottomless well of sadness mixed with stoic acceptance of their lot.
It was made in 2000, or at least copyrighted that year, and had a great influence on some of the plot of, and definitely the look of Viggo Mortensen’s body, in EASTERN PROMISES. Because it explores the meaning of many of the prisoners tattoos, as well as how they’ve changed, and to the despair of veteran prisoners become in their minds almost meaningless in the ways younger criminals use them.
The starkness of the conditions, the poverty and mistreatment is also disturbing (fifty prisoners in cells built for fifteen, meals of soupy broth or mushy “kasha” or moldy bread that causes illness, epidemics of fleas and antibiotic resistant strains of a virulent TB).
But the faces! The eyes! Few movies of any kind, documentary or otherwise have captured such iconic visages of pain and endurance, of shame and guilt, cruelty and helplessness.
How the young woman who directed it, Alix Lambert, (who, as I mentioned in a previous post participated along with me and several others in a recent reading for the anthology THE POEM I TURN TO) got access to these prisons and prisoners to film and interview them, is a mystery.
But what came out of that access is even more mysterious, as mysterious as life can be, let alone a work of art, which this film is.
Only recently out on DVD and never really distributed here, it’s worth tracking down. There’s a few docs and books out there with that name, so look for Alix Lambert’s THE MARK OF CAIN.
[PS: It's available from Amazon, that's where I got it.]