Thursday, June 28, 2007

Silverdocs: Miss Gulag

Miss Gulaghttp:// Gulag was a puff piece compared to the thick meat of State Legislature.The second screening I attended was Miss Gulag on Thursday night. It started past my bedtime and was in the Round House Theater. This was my first time inside the Round House Theater. Unfortunately, it was not my last. While Theater 3 in the AFI has plush seats and a stadium seating layout that would make a cinephile weep with joy, the Round House has cheap plastic office chairs squeezed together on rickety wooden risers. Still, it’s raked, so it could be worse. The shaky staging makes you appreciate the well-spaced padded armchairs of Theater 3. As if that weren’t enough, no food or drinks are allowed. If this film is about deprivation, the audience will empathize. We certainly couldn’t have survived 217 minutes of State Legislature in here. Compared to State Legislature there were more industry tags and fewer staff tags, more housewives and fewer khakis. Sardined next to me was a mother talking on her mobile to her child. “It’s called Mizz Goolahg. Yes, Goolahg. Yes, doesn’t that sound funny? I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. I haven’t seen it yet.” Behind me I hear people talking about their relief work in Kazakstan and how they met film producers working for the United Nations. The director and two producers are present for a Q & A after the film. The film is set in UF 91-935 a prison for women located in Novosibirsk, Siberia. The pageant started in 1990. The film follows three women. The film was shot in 2004. The inmate tells her story then a prison official reads the charges she was convicted of and her sentence. Then a family member talks about the woman before her crime. The women admit their crimes and explain why the committed them. There are 1000 women in the prison. There is a prison factory where they sew uniforms for the military. One of the inmates describes how she has sexual relationships with other women in prison, but that it’s sort of experimental.The above paragraph is the extent of the notes I took during the film. The rest is from the Q & A with the director and producers after the film.The filmmakers did not want to show atrocities. Atrocities are well-covered. They wanted to see the lives of women of our generation seeking independent paths and different destinies. The pageant contestants were secretive about their costumes because they were competitive. Each woman was picked by her unit to represent them in the pageant. Participating in the pageant looks good for parole. They got grants from the Ford Foundation and Sundance based on a 30 minute rough cut. Funding came one year after the film was made. They got access to the prison because the administration wanted to publicize their programming. It was a risky endeavor for the prison administrators because their jobs were on the line. The producers worked closely with the administrators. There were lots of restrictions. Guards were with them constantly. There were lots of things they were not allowed to film. When they arrived at the prison the first time the administrators wanted the filmmakers to sign a document that said if they filmed certain things the filmmakers could be prosecuted and sentenced to three to five years in prison. They signed it. They had to go through official channels to do anything. They were the first film crew inside a Siberian prison. The director got the idea for the film because she was searching the internet for a topic for her next project and stumbled upon something about a beauty pageant in prison. Her next project is probably going to be about Azerbaijan because she married a man from Nagorno-Karabakh and lives there now. The film hasn’t been shown in Russia yet. Russian prisons are well-covered in local news there. Russians would probably think that this film is from a very Western perspective. They filmed for one month. They found the characters because two were in the story online that the director read on the internet. Tatiana’s parole hearing was on the first day of filming, so we could see her get released. Natasha wrote all the songs. She still has no passport. She sees her girlfriend once a month. She’s trying to develop her career. The questions asked at Tatiana’s parole hearing were standard. All three women have very strong connections with their families. The filmmakers became close friends with all three women during filming. It made them ask about themselves, “What would have happened to me if I stayed in Russia?” We were weeping while shooting Yulia and her mother. They met at a Women Make Movies grant writing seminar in New York City.

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