Monday, November 17, 2008

Margaret Mead: Alone in Four Walls

Call it the school for Jean Valjeans. Boy after boy incarcerated in a Russian reformatory school tells a similar story—sentenced for two to three years for stealing jam or other common foodstuffs. There is also the boy serving three years for triple homicide. If that sounds grossly unjust, the punch-line of German director Alexandra Westmeier’s documentary Alone in Four Walls (trailer here) is that most of the young charges of the remote Ural reform school do not want to leave. Alone, which screened last night at the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, is an unusual issue-oriented documentary, because it refrains from bludgeoning the audience with its righteous.

Artfully filmed by Westmeier’s cinematographer husband Inigo, Alone focuses exclusively on the children of this facility, giving the supervising adults only incidental screen time. As we first meet the charges, they explain for the camera their starter-prison tattoos. However, as they tell their stories, they do not seem to be bad kids. Although the film begins with a scared new arrival distraught because he was not allowed to say goodbye to his mother, most of the residents have clearly adapted well to their new environment. After all, it offers them things they did not have at home: namely structure and regular meals.

In a rare turn of events, the Westmeiers’ post-screening Q&A was actually illuminating. The director explained the seemingly disproportionate sentences for pilfering food were often handed down as a way to get the children out of a dangerous situation, giving them a chance to finish school. While it might speak well of Russia’s juvenile justice system, it is a pretty damning indictment of the country’s overall social support system.

One of the few adults we hear from is an alumnus of the institution, who recalls his time there as the best years of his childhood. Yet, when he sought out his closest mates from his time there, one was already dead and another was back behind bars. It turns out recidivism is a brutal 91% for the school’s graduates. Westmeier blames the lack of social services for such at risk youth. The lawless example of the Russia government itself also would not exactly instill good citizenship either.

Westmeier’s approach works because she resists the urge to explicitly tell viewers what they should think about it all. Whether you fully share Westmeier’s sympathies for the children or not, Alone certainly takes viewers to a remote corner of Russian they have never seen before.