Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Allein in vier Wänden (Alone in Four Walls) (2007)

A tremendous documentary depicting life behind bars for Russian boys aged 11-14. Not a feel-good, the movie slowly introduces the boys and how they landed there. Inside the prison, the boys are surprisingly obedient and the conditions aren't terrible. They get regular, hearty meals; they work (constructing boxes, running machines, packing cardboard) and get paid, minimally; and energetically perform their chores. As the boys divulge details about their crimes: theft, using drugs and smoking, their sentence times (usually between 2-3 years) sound excessive..then, you meet the murderers. But, even then, it's difficult rationalizing the idea of prison time for these boys.

The film is beautifully shot--by Inigo Westmeier, the director's husband--smartly framed, keenly lit and shot mostly in close-ups acutely matching the's as if you are the one sitting across from these boys, hearing their tragedies. The director threads the doc creatively using actual letters written by the boys to their families. You even catch up with a boy years after he's left the prison.

I don't know how juvie halls work in the states, but these boys worked diligently, didn't fight, kept themselves in line and seemed happy. A few boys shed tears, but some mention that conditions are better in prison than at home--that at least they get fed and aren't beaten.

The director, Alexandra Westmeier, present for Q&A following the screening, shared interesting details: there are about 34 boys' prisons in Russia as well as 6 girls' prisons. She thinks she got the real impression and the boys weren't just on their best behavior. The philosophy behind the prisons is to try and offer the boys a chance at a childhood because most of them have come from terrible home conditions, and 91 percent of these boys will end up in prison again. The prisons doesn't offer therapy or emotional rehabilitation, so these boys opened up easily--except for the rapists; they had no desire to talk to her. The only time she faced difficulty was when they rolled in the camera dolly; because many of the boys have thieving experience, they kept looking down at it (instead of at the camera), assessing how much they could get for it. The director has kept in touch with all the boys and sounded determined to stay in their lives.

The 85-minute movie drags a bit in the middle and toward the end, but it's a worthy watch (my favorite SIFF selection, thus far). I hope it's distributed (for now, you can view the trailer at because for as much sadness as their reality evokes, you also leave consumed by their memories, hoping that by some miraculous intervention, they won't end up in that 91 percent, but knowing that they have very few options for a different path.

Themes: Child prisons, Russia, coming of age, crimes and misdemeanors

Director: Alexandra Westmeier

Countries: Germany, Russia

Genre: Documentary

Scale: not miss, if you have the opportunity


Bryce said...

We don't get out to many movies these days, but we did manage to see 'Die Fälscher' (The Counterfeiters), the lead in which you'll recognise if you've ever watched 'Comisar Rex' (Inspector Rex) a great cheesy Austrian cop show.

Worth going to see, but not great - used a top-and-tail flashback that sort of spoilt where it was heading, and a lot of hand heald camera that was a bit to shakey for me. If you manage to go see it I'd be interested in your opinion.

I only mention it as it too is mainly set in a prison (of sorts).

Michelle said...

You had me allll ready to add it to the blockbuster queue :( --- and then you dropped the SIFF bomb on me!!!! :0

Diana Mivelli said...

Hey Bryce,

The Counterfeiters is on my list. I managed to miss it on the big screen but I'm looking for it on DVD. I've heard good things. Once I see it, I'll post something. Thanks for the rec!

Joo Hyun said...

i've watched this docu on tv.. it was shocking. especially the childeren longing for some contacts from their families+the victim's mother response.
i do understand the vic's mother's view, but also feel sympathy to the kids in prison.
makes you think alot..