Archive for April 29th, 2009

We’ve all seen Eastern Promises, right?   Or you’re at least aware of it, I assume?


If you haven’t been living in a ’50’s-style bomb shelter, then you remember tatted-up Viggo Mortensen as a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises.   The Mark of Cain is a documentary about the significance of tattoos in Russian prison culture (which would explain how Mortensen’s character got all those tattoos, right?).   What starts out as a documentary about tattoos and their meanings also takes on an interesting, if saddening, look at Russian prison life.


Tattoos are symbolic in Russian prison culture.   Each symbol represents a variety of things; cupolas on churches represent the number of convictions a convict has, epaulets tattooed on shoulders represent the rank of the individual in the crime world and so on and so forth.

The Mark of Cain examines every aspect of the tattooing, from the actual creation of the tattoo ink, interviews with the tattooers and soberly looks at the double-edged sword of prison tattoos.   In many ways, they were needed to survive brutal Russian prisons, but mark the prisoner for life, which complicates any readmission to “normal” society they may have.   Tattoos expressly identify what the convict has been convicted of,  how many prisons he’s been in and what kind of criminal he is.   Tattoos, essentially, tell you everything you need to know about that person without ever asking.


The documentarians interview prisoners, criminologists and the men who run the prisons.   What comes out of these interviews and the extensive footage of both men and women’s prisons is not necessarily just a culture of tattooing, but a violent, brutal system that engenders the necessity of the protection of tattoos in many ways.   It’s not the only reason, but it appears to be a large factor in the spawning and flourishing of tattoo culture.


The unflinching look at the Russian prison system is slowly woven into the film.  Cells meant to hold 15 hold 35 to 45 men.   Drug-resistant TB runs rampant through the prison populations and prisoners are served three meals a day of watery slop.   There are allegations of brutality by the guards.   As these men deal with pestilence, violence and grossly substandard living conditions, the prison guards and administration put on a talent show.


Tattooing for symbolism is on the decline, but the film shows the remorse and regret of the prisoners who do have them, mainly for what each tattoo means.   Some of the prisoners express fear at reintegrating into society.  Some entered into the system while Russia was still the U.S.S.R., meaning they must re-enter society as outcasts while simultaneously adjusting to a completely new country.    Many of the prisoners express disgust at the prison system in general – thievery gets you a harsher sentence than killing someone, for example, and many of the prisoners convey a universal repugnance at the system that has fostered illness, malnutrition and a sad standard of living.

It is not only the prisoners that feel disgust; one of the experts they interview is less than pleased with the system and some of the family members of inmates are interviewed.   The families worry over their sons eating enough; they send food and rations into the prisons, hoping their sons will get some scraps since they understand they are not fed enough.   Corruption in the Russian prison system is merely hinted at here, as the relatives confess they know their family members may not even receive a tenth of what they send.   The rest will be “confiscated”.

The Mark of Cain is an excellent documentary.   While the subject matter is sad, it’s worth a watch.   It tackles a sprawling bureaucratic prison system, humanizes it, shows its faults and an interesting culture that has spawned partially out of necessity, without a heavy hand and without going overboard on the moralizing.   It presents a variety of viewpoints on Russian prison life.   Depressing, but oddly interesting, it’s a strange and worthwhile look.

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