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Miss Gulag

Directed by Maria Yatskova

This is quite simply one of the finest documentaries of this decade on life in Russia. Director Maria Yatskova uses the pretext of a beauty pageant held at a women’s prison outside Novosibirsk to examine the lives and fates of a handful of women caught up in the Russian prison system.

What results is a searing portrait of a grim archipelago, a touching look at the women’s families and communities, and a deeply nuanced portrait of Russian justice.

The cinematography and editing is brilliant, from the opening scene, where a woman in a Cinderella dress smiles and admits she is in for assault, to the Eisensteinian shots of administrators, to the calm panning of prisoners’ faces. Miss Gulag has a determinedly understated quality, capturing revealing details in a matter-of-fact way, without judging – from the contestants’ outlandish costumes, to visiting day, to the mundane details of one prisoner’s release.

Order this film online and/or contact your local PBS station and tell them they need to air this documentary.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2010