February 15, 2007
Berlinale Dispatch. Miss Gulag.Adrienne Hudson on a doc that's screened in the Panorama section. Miss Gulag [site] by Russian-American director Maria Yatskova documents the annual beauty pageant in a Russian prison camp for women. Yatskova follows three women in different stages of their lives: one who will be stuck in the camp for years to come, one who is on the verge of parole and one who as been out for a few months. Throughout the film, I kept thinking that this was something I'd more expect to see on, say, the French-German television channel arte. In other words, it wouldn't really have to be seen on the big screen. When Yatskova and the two producers got up on stage after the film to answer questions from the audience, the director explained that she came across just a short article on this beauty pageant on the internet one day and immediately felt the desire to make a movie about it. That's great; the idea itself does have a lot of potential. The women she chose to focus on are indeed interesting characters, and the pageant is a strange event in what is, as the father of one of the girls calls it, basically a third world country. But the idea, unfortunately, isn't enough. Maybe if the film crew hadn't had such limited access, the movie might have turned up more surprises. Let's face it, we are all attracted by extremes. Unfortunately, however, every person involved had to sign a contract to ensure they would not show certain areas or happenings at the prison camp; otherwise, they would have to face the punishment of - how chilling - a sentence of five to seven years at the very same camp. Even though it didn't grip me, I wouldn't call Miss Gulag tedious, as it apparently was to the guy next to me. He kept on readjusting in his seat, sighing and looking over his shoulder, trying to catch his buddy's eye, obviously only sticking around because of him. Usually, I would have been annoyed, but I actually felt more humored and sorry for the guy getting himself into such an increasingly desperate state. So, no, it wasn't close to that bad for me, but I did feel this was more something I'd zap to and watch part of to wind down with and then eventually drift off. I felt a bit guilty about that when an elderly woman stood up during the Q&A and announced in a strong voice with a heavy Russian accent how speechless she was. This group of people was able to display a truth never seen in the Russian media. The film would never have been possible for her generation, she said. I tried not to feel guilty; it's obvious that different movies are going to mean different things to different people. I acknowledge the value of Yatskova's work, even if I'm not thrilled by it. Another aspect that doesn't exactly help the movie is the production company's limited means. Unfortunately, almost all the material was heavily pixeled, including the lettering of the inserts that seperate the movie into chapters. Each time the narrator, Yatskova herself, came on, you could hear the microphone being turned on and off, and at times you could here the microphones were subjected to noises too loud for them. All in all: Check it out if it's on TV some day and, if you're really interested in the topic, perhaps there'll be a DVD.
Posted by dwhudson at February 15, 2007 11:41 AM