Many of the best documentaries not only find interesting subject matter but also succeed in focusing the illumination of that subject matter by using a central case, incident, person, or story to keep film balanced between the general and the specific. Miss Gulag tries hard to balance the story of a beauty pageant in a Siberian prison for females with a broader examination of life in post-Soviet society.
It doesn’t quite succeed in using the local to comment on the global, but it comes close. Several interesting questions are raised by the content. Do women innately aspire to be beautiful, and, if so, does the pageant rehabilitate by helping the contestants [re]connect with their femininity or simply indoctrinate them into accepting a particular, culture norm of femininity as part of their sentence? Is the purpose of prison reform, rehabilitation, punishment, or some mix of the three? Of what use is prison when the broader economic or social conditions are sufficient to create anxiety, despair, or hopelessness? Those who would rehabilitate must have something to rehabilitate prisoners into; those who would punitive must have conditions that are a sufficient contrast from the grinding poverty or bleakness of life on the outside.
My greater interest in these larger questions is probably why the more effective part of the documentary for me was the interviews with the prisoners regarding how they ended up behind bars. The call of drugs and, especially, the attempts to buy into (or at least parrot) the language of abstinence as a self-evident good are rather thought provoking. That the way out of prison is through evidencing individual transformation, leaving little or no room to discuss the conditions that promote bad (or self-sabotaging) personal choices, should be familiar to most viewers.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much (enough?) distinguishing of the inmates, meaning very little is at stake for the viewers in who wins the pageant. Given the pessimism with which life outside of prison is depicted, it may even be fair to ask whether or not the pageant becomes a metaphor for distraction, a kind of make-work that isn’t in principle much different from factory labor that prison employees are called on to perform.
There is, though, something poignant about watching people who are too soon inured to failure and feelings of self-doubt (or even worthlessness) experience some taste of success, reward, or praise. In the end, humans long for affirmation, want to think themselves (and actually be) capable of rising above even the harshest circumstances.