Dir. Nick Read
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The screen is pitch black and the sickening sounds of a metal door clanging shut are followed by the hollow echo of footsteps upon a concrete floor and the jangling of keys that are opening yet another door.
"All of a sudden,
I feel a wave of horror.
I dreamt I was with my friends."
As we fade up upon a bleak view of chain link fences adorned with barbed wire and snow-covered barracks and a sky brimming with a tell-tale sub-arctic blue, the voice continues:
"How could they be alive?"
Another fade to black and then a quick fade up on an image distinguished only by a patch of murky light, the sounds of more keys and footsteps accompany the final sickening words:
"I'd killed them."
We are in Russia, or if you will, Hell. For many who are enclosed within the perimeter of fencing and locked gates, this will be their Purgatory until death takes them to the fiery eternal abode of Mephistopheles. Those who are not here for life, came in as young men and will leave as old men. This is the Federal Penal Colony No. 56 in Central Russia, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of deep forest in the Russian taiga. There's only one road in and one road out. The nearest populated community is a seven-hour drive away. The temperatures here frequently dip to 40 below zero.
There's no escape.
Director/Cinematographer Nick Read and producer Mark Franchetti introduce us to two sets of prisoners in this compulsive, staggeringly well crafted and downright great film. The Condemned are split between the most dangerous and the dangerous-but-less-so. The former live in solitary confinement, monitored by video 24-hours per day, not allowed to rest on their bed during the day time, forced to an eternity of pacing back and forth in the tiniest cell imaginable and allowed one hour per day of being outdoors in an chilly outdoor chicken run-styled enclosure not much bigger than their cells. The latter group live in a communal compound wherein they endure endless hard labour and an extremely rigid caste system that reduces many of the men to lives that are perhaps even more worthless than they could already be living.
Aside from capturing the day-to-day drudgery and monotony, Read expertly gets the prisoners to open up and bare their souls about the crimes they committed, their victims, their families, their thoughts and philosophies on forgiveness and redemption. Even more powerful is how the men give us personal glimpses into how they continue to live in a world that is, for the most part, hopeless and how some construct life out of what they can within the rigid construct of the penal system.
A great many of the men were originally on death row, but when Russia abolished capital punishment in 1997, their sentences were commuted to life. What a life. The Russian parliament made sure to enact specific wording in the laws so that daily, gruelling punishment is the order of these men's lives. Even worse is how so many of them men committed their crimes in that period when communism collapsed and the poverty was so overwhelming that the only mode of survival was crime or worse, numbing their pain with so much booze and drugs that many of their violent crimes occurred under the influence.
What's impossible to ignore in this powerful and moving film is a sense of humanity within the most inhuman/inhumane conditions. A handful of scenes involving visitations from family are downright wrenching. Even more brutal is discovering how so many of the prisoners are men of thought and intellect. The discourse of many is not the stereotypical tough-guy talk we expect, but is in fact, deeply thoughtful and philosophical.
There have been many documentaries about prison life, but almost none of them are produced with the kind of eye for cinematic artistry that The Condemned is imbued with. Part of this success comes from Read's direction which is coupled with his superb visual eye as a cinematographer, but also the meticulous pace and cutting from editor Jay Taylor who astoundingly makes monotony compelling and, on occasion, treats us to cuts that are breathtaking in their virtuosity.
The film drains us physically, but what remains is pure spirituality as we are allowed to connect with the souls of men whose actions on the outside include some of the most horrendous acts of violence. This might be the film's greatest strength and one that pretty much ensures its life as a masterpiece - a picture that will live long beyond the usual ephemeral concerns of most movies today.
The Condemned is screening at Hot Docs 2014 in Toronto. For further info, visit the festival website HERE. World Sales by Films Transit International.