A streetwise young man gets the Holy Spirit stuffed into him in a special prison in Alejo Hoijman’s questionable doc, “Unit 25.” Hoijman uses techniques so akin to narrative filmmaking that many viewers will assume they’re watching a drama. The overall work shares nothing with the rich, subjective and poetic pics (e.g., “The Tree,” “The Blondes”) dominating recent Argentine nonfiction. Whether the results come from contrivance or reality will be debated, making it a potential controversy-laden, talking-point pic at fests and a sure item for elite tube buyers in Latin American, Euro and Christian markets.
The fact Christians may flock to this doc points up the project’s confusion, for it seems equally likely Hoijman either wanted to show the nefarious ways in which Evangelical Christianity is used as a cudgel in the special Argentine prison known as Unit 25 (the only one of its kind in Latin America), or that he wanted to observe how a lost young man named Simon Pedro entered the unit as a disbeliever and, by the end, found his faith.
Yet another possible and more profound perspective — and there’s nothing on view that discourages or encourages it — is that “Unit 25” is a parable on the power of the group to enforce its codes and beliefs on the individual to conform. Various readings, though, aren’t a sign of the doc’s depth, but of its conceptual confusion.
Simon arrives in a prison van at what appears to be an unremarkable institution. Soon, though, something here is quite different: Mornings begin with group call-and-response chants and sing-alongs with loud and aggressive “servants” or overseers, many of whom have been ordained by the presiding evangelical church. Hoijman’s camera pointedly catches Simon not joining in.
The cycle of such singing, chanting and group Bible sessions repeats again and again, in numbing fashion — a hell for nonbelievers, a heaven for the faithful. Simon, arrested but not yet prosecuted for stabbing a man 20 times, claims he came here at the request of his brother, but it still seems strange someone so clearly disinterested in this in-your-face brand of Christianity is here. Some of the “servants” feel the same way, and say as much to Simon.
Several lengthy dialogue scenes sound suspiciously scripted (Hoijman is on the record denying the project had any pre-written dialogue, though — like many docs — there is a script credit), while some of the group scenes are lensed by Gaston Girod with multiple camera angles that go far beyond the standard documentary camera coverage of such scenes. These and other elements, not least of which is a finale in which Simon is seen fully and happily participating in prayer and hymn services (though with the shadow of an impending trial looming), hint that a dramatic arc has been achieved, whether constructed or not.
If Hoijman did intend a critique of such a prison, his own critics are sure to question if what he’s actually made is a propaganda film for evangelism, given the extraordinary access he and his accomplished crew gained to Unit 25. (Girod’s high-intensity lensing is the pic’s standout aspect.). This may be an unfair knock, but that such debating points can even be brought up underlines the project’s Janus-like nature.