Miss Gulag



BERLIN -- Taking as her subject the fascinating oddity of women inmates in a Siberian prison putting on an annual fashion show, first-time filmmaker Maria Yatskova has made a telling documentary about social chaos in post-Soviet Russia. The fashion show is merely her way at getting at the truth about a nation in free fall from dictatorial paternalism to capitalist indifference to its citizens.

Certainly, more festivals loom in the future for "Gulag." Its best exposure, though, would be through TV deals. Yatskova has certainly put her journalism background -- she previously worked for the Associated Press -- to good use in her first film, a thoroughly engrossing effort that is screening here in the Panorama section.

Siberian camp UF-91/9 must be one of the dreariest places on Earth, both inside and out. This is a prison for women, most of whom are incarcerated on drug or assault charges. To lift everyone's spirits, the authorities have hit upon an annual fashion show where several of the young women strut the catwalks in their own outrageous designs.

Using the days leading up to the show as a focal point, Yatskova tells the story of three women: two prisoners and a parolee who wants to return to participate in the show she once directed with considerable enthusiasm. Hard to believe, but this woman is almost nostalgic for her days with her female buddies and the fashion show itself.

What comes out of these three stories, each quite different yet remarkably similar, is the sense of helplessness in today's Russia among young people. They have so few opportunities to make a good living or a good life for themselves. The only thing there is plenty of is drugs.

Equally as disastrous for those prisoners who are paroled, the government refuses to give them proper documents to find work and almost no one will hire them without these papers. So the chances of recidivism are considerable. In a throwback to Soviet days, the parolee must drive back roads to the prison since she lacks the proper travel documents to leave her home.

Under such stressful circumstances, all three women seem remarkably sane and determined to mend their ways. No one wants to go back to UF-91/9.

The fashion show itself is a hoot. The women are quite pretty and display growing self-confidence in modeling for their fellow inmates. They have exotic tastes in their clothes, undoubtedly to create extreme contrasts to their drab surroundings and garments. These creations are a bit kitschy but make perfect sense in this context.

The film even ends on a positive note as a second woman goes up for parole and earns a pass out of jail. But we already know that little that is positive awaits her on the outside.

Neihausen-Yatskova and Vodar Films
Director: Maria Yatskova
Screenwriters: Maria Yatskova, Irina Vodar
Producers: Irina Vodar, Raphaela Neihausen

Director of photography: Grigori Rudakov
Editors: Peter Kinoy, Stephen Ovenden
Running time -- 80 minutes
No MPAA rating