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Crime and Punishment and Art Therapy

Ed Rampell: Miroshnichenko’s camera coldly but compassionately reveals the bleak realities of daily life for the inmates, who often wear drab brown skirts, black tights, prison boots and blue winter jackets to protect them from the cold.

DEBUT Film Review

[NOTE: This review may contain some plot spoilers.]

Anastasiya Miroshnichenko’s well-made, touching documentary Debut provides viewers with a rare glimpse behind the “Iron Curtain.” By this I’m not merely referring to the fact that this 80-minute film was shot in Belarus, which was formerly known as Byelorussia or Belorussia and, like Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Rather, more to the point, Debut was largely filmed behind bars and barbed wire, inside the sprawling complex of “Women’s Prison #4 of Gomel City” in the southeastern part of Belarus.

Miroshnichenko’s camera coldly but compassionately reveals the bleak realities of daily life for the inmates, who often wear drab brown skirts, black tights, prison boots and blue winter jackets to protect them from the cold.

There, 1,500 female first-time offenders are serving sentences of five to 25 years for a variety of crimes. Miroshnichenko’s camera coldly but compassionately reveals the bleak realities of daily life for the inmates, who often wear drab brown skirts, black tights, prison boots and blue winter jackets to protect them from the cold. Their day-to-day existence is highly regimented, full of chores such as KP duties like potato peeling, sewing uniforms in the prison factory and so on. Conditions are Spartan and harsh but we do not see the prisoners being tortured or physically brutalized per se by their captors - or by one another

Instead, their confinement strips the convicts of much of their humanity, especially since they have been separated from their families. A common lament is the mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends yearning to be with loved ones, who they have little contact with. One woman remarks that her little girl “has a mother - but she doesn’t,” due to her absence. The prison is overcrowded, offering inmates existing in barracks-like conditions, little if any privacy. Another young lady regrets that under the forced isolation one becomes “an asexual being.” (Unlike many Hollywood B-pictures about women behind bars Debut does not devolve into sexual or violent exploitation.)

As the nonfiction film’s title hints and its opening scene shows, 11 female volunteers escape - if only momentarily - from their daily grind of depersonalization by acting in a play. In Debut’s opening the cast is seen rehearsing in one of the penitentiary’s buildings. They are being directed by one of Debut’s few male characters, Alexey Bichkov, a professional theater director.

The documentary mostly alternates between matter-of-fact tableaux realistically depicting incarceration and scenes of Bichkov trying to whip his nonprofessional cast into shape, because the imprisoned thespians are actually going to perform the drama they’re rehearsing live. Not only that, but the inmates will make a very rare excursion out of the joint to premiere the play onstage at the Gomel City Drama Theater, where in addition to ordinary theatergoers and some prison officials, their families will get to see them strut their stuff.

In addition to this counterpoint between the worlds of prison and art, from time to time Miroshnichenko adds another dimension: Sequences shot presumably not by her crew, but by closed circuit television cameras, which are intercut with the rest of the action, on- and offstage. The CCTV scenes are black and white or washed out color and time stamped, and they creatively enhance the sense of always being under surveillance and incarcerated. They also convey an eerie sensibility of alienation.

Debut builds up to the debut or premiere of the prisoners’ play at the Gomel City Drama Theater. Before they perform, as the rehearsals wind up, Bichkov wishes his cast of amateur actors a benediction: “Creativity,” he declares. At another point the prisoners pretend that they are celebrities, guests on a talk show. They actually do get to be stars for an evening, and opening night is very poignant as the prisoners perform for a sold out audience and elicit a heartfelt standing ovation.

But then it’s back to the slammer - although Debut ends hopefully as one of the inmate actresses, having served out her sentence, is released from Women’s Prison #4 of Gomel City. It is, so to speak, quite literally, the ex-con’s debut, as she starts her new life.

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Miroshnichenko does something extremely clever at the end - just before the final credits roll the crimes committed by the various Belarus Raskolnikovs are revealed. In this way, the audience does not prematurely condemn and pass judgment on these women before they get to know them as individuals and human beings.

Belarus’ official Oscar entry reminded me of the 2012 Italian documentary Caesar Must Die by the Taviani Brothers, which I saw at the AFI Film Festival six years ago. It was filmed inside of Rome’s high security, all-male Rebibbia, where prison theater director Fabio Cavalli presented plays performed by the inmates. Many of the hardcore convicts were Mafioso and it’s fascinating that in the doc Cavalli produced a very violent drama: William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Debut also made me think about The Actors’ Gang, a theater company that also operates a Prison Project, wherein Artistic Director Tim Robbins and several associates conduct acting workshops in eight California prisons as a way to put inmates in touch with their emotions and humanity through the arts. Robbins starred in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption and was Oscar-nominated for directing the 1995 death row drama Dead Man Walking.

A couple of years ago, at a screening of the documentary Rikers, An American Jail at The Gang’s Culver City theater, I asked Robbins why he was interested in incarceration?

“It’s the way I grew up, where I grew up, and the time I grew up in that led me to more empathy and understanding of what happens in prisons. I grew up with a rough bunch in New York and a few of the kids I grew up with wound up in jail. So I never really felt that far removed from the people who wind up in prison. ‘There but for the grace of god go I.’ I was lucky, I had people that guided me in the right direction. But I don’t feel disconnected with the idea that somebody screws up in their life and finds themselves incarcerated. Those two films were informed by that lack of judgment and also, with Dead Man Walking in particular, a crime that has victims, one has to honor that story as well,” said Robbins, who won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in the 2003 crime drama Mystic River. (For info see: https://theactorsgang.com/theprisonproject/.)

Whether in English, Italian or, as in Debut, in Russian with English subtitles, for those doing hard time drama can be a form of art therapy. According to Debut’s co-producer, Nadzeya Huselnikava: “DEBUT premiered at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (First Appearance Competition), was presented at other international festivals. The screening rights have been acquired by TV channels such as ARTE (France), MDR (Germany), SVT (Sweden), Current Time (Czech Republic), and ERT S.A (Greece).

Debut won a Special Jury Award at the 58th Krakow Film Festival and the Doc ON AIR Award in Docs Thessaloniki in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Debut is still getting its distribution worldwide. Taskovski Films is its distributor.”

Los Angeles filmgoers can attend a free screening of Debut and Q&A with director Anastasiya Miroshnichenko plus cocktails at 7:00 p.m., Sunday, December 8 at the boutique arthouse Arena Cinelounge, 6464 Sunset Blvd, L.A., CA, 90028. RSVP: debut@parkerwhitaker.com

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.