HotDocs14: The Condemned

The Condemned, about a Russian penal colony for murderers, is admirably unobtrusive. This study of long-term incarceration could easily have been a heavy-handed activist persuasion piece, or worse, a freak show of kooky prisoners. Unfortunately, though, its unobtrusive style also checks the viewer’s interests at almost every turn, keeping us, figuratively, on the outside.

The uniqueness of the film's promotion drew me in. As the capsule summary in the Hot Docs Screening Schedule states: “Hidden in a forest as large as Germany, Russia’s maximum-security prison exclusively for murderers has been impenetrable—until now.” Titles early on in the film similarly emphasize the uniqueness of the prison (and also repeat the comparison to Germany’s size—does Germany play the role of Texas in European equivalencies?). While the film calls attention to the remarkable location through long panning shots of the forest and the comments of visiting family members about the lengthy and expensive trip, for the most part it does not elaborate on or delve into the details of the prison.

Whether restrictions were imposed upon the filmmakers, I don’t know. What’s clear, though, is director Nick Read’s intention to be unobtrusive. For example, although much of the film involves interviews with the inmates, the viewer only sees talking heads occasionally. For the most part, as a prisoner talks about his crimes, punishment, and life in prison, we see images of him performing various routines and activities, or just sitting around and staring. The viewer never hears Read’s prompts, questions, or comments.

The camera similarly remains observational, yet its tendency to linger on emblematic details—for example, achingly slow drops of water or heavy locks—calls attention to the careful placement of the camera. Even unobtrusive observation is a form of narration.

I respect that the film is more interested in observing than persuading though. And thankfully, it doesn’t demean its prisoner-subjects by presenting them as simplistic villains or kooks. They are people, some less sane than others, all of them admitted killers, and most sorry for their crimes. Or so they say. The film doesn’t comment or judge them. It lets them tell pieces of their stories.

One theme a number of prisoners comment on is capital punishment. Russia suspended the death penalty in 1996, but many of the prisoners say it would give them relief. Again, the film is neither clearly for or against capital punishment. The prison’s governor says it’s the only solution, but the film, in an example of its opaqueness, never delves further into the governor’s belief, or pursues what has driven the governor to oversee this remote prison for a longer period of time than most of its prisoner’s sentences.

The camera does observe two powerful moments, though, both of them involving family visits. The first is touching for the continued familial affection it shows; the second is devastating for the distance it reveals between a mother who doesn’t know what to say and a son who is clearly losing his grip on reality.

In spite of a few powerful moments and an admirable approach, The Condemned offers little more than the general yet evocative title would lead one to imagine.

7 out of 10

The Condemned (UK/Russia)

Directed by Nick Read.