Alix Lambert, “The Mark of Caïn” (2000)
Ostensibly a film about the declining custom of tattooing in Russian prisons, its history and how it serves as a language among prisoners, Alix Lambert’s “The Mark of Cain” is a disguised documentary of the conditions in Russian prisons and the social structures and culture that developed among the prisoners and those who run and manage the prisons. The documentary immerses viewers in the lives of prisoners by allowing the prisoners to state and explain what they do, what tattoos they have and what they mean; the film-makers simply follow and film their subjects, and edit the film to follow particular strands of the narrative. The film does weave in and out of the tattooing topic, starting with it and ending with it, and hopping back and forth between tattooing and various other aspects of prison life. Several prisoners and prison administrators at various penitentiaries (including the brutal White Swan prison established by Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky – Cheka was the forerunner of the NKVD which later became the KGB) in Moscow, Perm and Samara are interviewed. Viewers will come away with mixed feelings about what they have seen: many prisoners will elicit compassion, others will inspire contempt, and their living conditions are often horrific and very depressing.
Topics covered in the doco include the often squalid and overcrowded living conditions of prisoners, their meagre diet, health and hygiene, the apparent brutality of the guards and the ways prisoners try to cope with prison life and one another. The social hierarchy they observe is spelt out in the tattoos they accumulate: particular images may indicate what crimes they committed, their interests in life, how long they have spent in prison and what their status among other prisoners is. A code of conduct known as Thieves’ Tradition (Vor v zakone) exists among the prisoners and very stringent it can be: only those who achieve the highest level of Thief-in-the-law (the leadership level) in the prisoner hierarchy may have images of Stalin, Lenin, Marx or Jesus on the cross tattooed on their bodies, and they must refrain from having families or family ties or holding down a job or any other form of government-approved commerce. The lowest level of the hierarchy is reserved for Downcasts who play a catamite role and are thus regarded as polluted and untouchable. While the code of conduct and hierarchy may give prison life some order and stability and reduce the likelihood of conflict among prisoners, obviously some inmates benefit more from this system than others. A couple of camera shots of some men in a cell taken by Lambert’s crew during the lunch-time scenes suggest depression and other mental health issues are a major problem though the film’s active attention to prisoner health is restricted to investigating the prison authorities’ inconsistent treatment of TB which has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease among inmates.
The notion of prison as a microcosm of Russian society is broached by the prisoners themselves who talk about how prison transforms and hardens people, and how it reflects wider social changes in a more intense and blunt form. Older prisoners bemoan the mercenary nature of younger prisoners who buy tattoos rather than earn them. There is a definite tension between the older and younger generations of prisoners which reflects the different social and economic systems they have grown up in. Addiction to drugs is becoming a more urgent issue among inmates and is changing the nature of prison society with a resulting breakdown in the prison code of conduct and its communication system.
The emphasis on letting the prisoners and prison authorities speak for themselves and the world they inhabit gives “The Mark …” a grim and often depressing tone. At times the atmosphere is very insular and suffocating though there is also a meditative, poetic mood reminiscent of the Tarkovsky science fiction movie “Stalker”: prisoners even refer to their world as The Zone. At least they have a wickedly dark sense of humour. The possibility exists that some prisoners talked up their degradation so as to make prison life seem grimmer than it actually is. Perhaps Lambert could have tried to find some statistics from both government and unofficial sources about prison conditions to round out and confirm (or maybe counter) what the prisoners and prison administrators say in the film and to provide some distance from her subjects so viewers can breathe a little easier during often harrowing scenes.
Nowhere in the film does Lambert interview any politicians at federal, state, provincial or local city government level so it’s difficult to say whether the Russian government is indifferent or not towards the prison system. As it is, with its flaws and shortcomings, “The Mark …” is a riveting film to watch. We’re not likely to see another film soon about conditions in Russian prisons so people should see this if they can and have an interest in tattooing and/or Russian society. (The film is available on Youtube.)