Proving that being in jail needn’t stop a girl from trying to look her best, docu “Miss Gulag” unveils how one Russian women’s prison has introduced an annual beauty pageant featuring homemade costumes to inculcate community spirit. Character-led debut by helmer Maria Yatskova offers a sufficiently compelling and original ensemble to arrest attention of further fests after well-received premier at Berlin, but pic could use some tailoring to fix ragged seams and baggy shape if it’s to find release either on TV or in cinemas.
Background-filling voiceover spiel in English from helmer Yatskova explains how Siberian women’s prison UF-91/9 has been for several years holding beauty contests to guide prisoners toward collective effort. Whether the contestants win the title of “Miss Spring” or not, having taken part looks good with the parole board. Moreover, as several slammer chicks explain, it’s a pleasure just having a chance to dress up and “feel like a real woman” for a change.
Pic focuses mainly on three protagonists, two of them still incarcerated. A native of nearby Novosibersk, good-natured Yulia Yurieva is, like roughly half the women in Russia’s prison system, doing time for a drug-related crime.
Yulia reckons one of her main rivals for the Miss Spring crown will be Tatiana Pereberina, a svelte Siberian beauty who was convicted of holding up a gas station in her home town. Although Tatiana would seem fated to enter a criminal career after a childhood spent in state children’s homes, she’s determined to go straight if she gets paroled.
Finally, former prisoner Natalia Patalachova, an ex-drug user, reps one of UF-91/9’s success stories. Participation in the Miss Spring contest and the friendship of another prisoner (there’s a hint they were lovers) turned Natalia around, but civilian life turn out to be harder than she expected.
She actually misses the prison, and on the day of the pageant she comes back to sing for her old friends still inside. Later, she cuts a single about prison life, called “Forbidden Zone,” in a Siberian recording studio.
Somewhat frustratingly, it’s never explained who actually wins in the end, which may fox auds expecting another suspense-led, competition-centred docu along the lines of “Spellbound” or “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
Instead, helmer Yatskova, a former journalist, emphasizes the women’s stories, especially the hard knocks that landed them in the big house. It’s a more criminological approach that’s interesting but not especially rich in drama, although there’s a pleasant surprise in the last third when one woman gets released.
Lesson in how the collapse of the Soviet Union — complete with Russia for Idiots map graphics — affected people like Natalia who was raised in Kazakhstan reps a didactic digression that further slows story, and makes pic look too much like made-for-TV fodder. Digital lensing is fine, although editing could use rework.