“Don’t wait for me mama, don’t expect the nice boy I used to be. Expect a crook and a thief.”
-Opening Russian folk song from “Mark of Cain”
Is “Mark of Cain,” a different kind of skin flick, the best documentary I’ve ever seen?
Four years ago, I staggered out of Seattle’s “Women in Cinema” Festival, shaken by director Alix Lambert’s unforgettable journey into Russia’s penal colonies, where convicted felons assert themselves through a complex language of inked limbs, faces, and torsos. Today, I’m still haunted by the pained expressions and hypnotic tattoos that fill her wrenching film. And I’m betting that once you share in the experience, you’ll never forget them, either.
The movie’s scripture-inspired title suggests murderer Cain, from the Book of Genesis, forever branded by God for having killed brother Abel. Lambert’s subjects – warehoused in concrete prison bins such as the White Swan and the Samara Pre-Trial Detention Center – share Cain’s infamous history, convicted of murder, rape, robbery, and hooliganism. Unlike Cain, however, their marks are self-inflicted by handcrafted tattoo guns. And rather than act as an ominous warning to others, these ink-etched designs are inviting, beautiful imprints of cathedrals, spiders, and saviors.
After visiting Moscow and attending the city’s first tattoo convention, L.A.-based Lambert spoke with criminologists and researched the unusual creative niche of prison tat art. Obsessed with capturing these marked masses on film, she returned to Russia for nearly a month, touring eight prisons under potentially volatile circumstances. With Russian camera crew and translator in tow, but minus official clearance (“Much time was spent drinking Vodka with prison wardens,” she explains), Lambert gained intimate access to a subculture she had initially been warned would not cooperate. In addition to studying and documenting the astounding canvases of flesh revealed by these hardened men, Lambert walked away with an emotionally devastating chronicle illustrating how art acts as a lifeline to those living under horrific, deprived conditions.
Lambert is the perfect guide through this grimy-yet-exotic territory. An acclaimed conceptual artist, her work is that of an eccentric daredevil – she’s the Indiana Jones of the lens ‘n easel crowd. For one art experiment, Lambert married – then hastily divorced – a number of temporary suitors. An experienced pilot, she’s flown the Goodyear Blimp and soared with the Blue Angels. Responding to the Seattle grunge movement that spawned Nirvana, she formed “Platipussy,” an all-girl mock-rock trio that actually recorded a record, shot promo videos, and produced fan merchandise. A master at infiltrating subcultures, it’s not surprising that the world of prison tats would hold intrigue.
Predictably, from one who fancies fringe-based adventure, Lambert claimed to have never gotten the jitters. “I was intuitively not afraid. I don’t know why. We were certainly in situations that were dangerous. Maybe because I had so many things that demanded my focus that I didn’t have time – I don’t know.”
Coming across not as lecherous fiends, the inmates instead appear friendly, sincere, and enthusiastic about showing off their elaborate bodywork. Provided with no conventional tools, these behind-bars artists take inventive measures to conjure forth their dermal impressions. Creating soot by burning the sole of a shoe, then combining these dark ashes with their own urine, the prisoners mix ink. Using windup shavers, writing pens, and guitar strings, they fabricate machines to inject this thick liquid beneath their skin. Sure, they’re concerned about contracting diseases. But what the hell. Most are already infected with TB, an inevitable consequence of Russian prison life.
Like bloated animals pacing a kennel, handfuls of shirtless men bide their time in cells so small and stuffy that not everyone can stand up at once. In fact, the occupants must agree on a schedule concerning who sits, who stands, and who lies down on the room’s bunk beds. “We’ve gotten used to it,” a smiling convict remarks of the cramped space and stale, stinky air.
“Some inmates were not interested in talking with us or showing us their tattoos,” Lambert elaborates. “We always respected that. I was not interested in pressuring anyone. The idea was to give voice to those who wanted it.”
On an aesthetic level, the inmates’ flesh-murals are awesome in their detail and creativity. But they also act as clues to their wearer’s histories, social status, and interests. In other words, tattoos provide these defeated legions with proof that they still exist. They might be unseen and unwanted, but they’re still alive.
Take aging Viktor, sporting a potbelly and unkempt, “Bad Santa” beard. His chest is forever branded with side-by-side images of Lenin, Marx, and Engels. The trio stares from his skin like a Communist Mt. Rushmore. Meanwhile, the Russian leaders’ likenesses provide a practical advantage. “If they sentenced you to death,” explains Evgeny, another convict in for murder, “then they wouldn’t shoot you. Because it was a tattoo of the leader.”
Judging from the skin-ink designs worn by his peers, Viktor can tell when their legal woes began. In the late twenties, he explains in the film, eagles were a favored motif. Soon afterwards, political leaders like those staining his own belly became the rage. Now, Viktor observes younger inmates wearing grotesque, exaggerated patterns. “They have devils frying a priest on a bonfire,” he proclaims disapprovingly. “It’s all rubbish.”
Clearly, Viktor’s remarks reveal a generation gap existing within the cells. Like older men in barbershops whining about the awful music and clothing styles embraced by young people, more traditional prisoners harp on about younger, “smart-ass” inmates being disrespectful and abandoning the customary tat designs embraced by elders. Ironically, even as Viktor and his “old school” cronies serve sentences determined by a system of “law and order,” they seem to fear the breakdown of their own, internal order of specific tats representing particular ages or rankings.
“This was part of the story that I didn’t expect,” Lambert says of the cultural schism between young and old that “Mark of Cain” unveils. “These unexpected pieces are the blessings of documentary filmmaking – when you really do learn about a whole layering of worlds that you didn’t know about before. Also, because of this division the practice is dying out and therefore I am that much more pleased that we were able to record it, as it will be gone when those older prisoners are gone.”
Criminologist Arkadi Bownikov teaches us what else can be learned from Russian prison tattoos. Ink rings on knuckles represent the number of sentences an inmate has served. Killers often favor likenesses of hooded executioners. Depictions of a crucified Jesus can only be worn by “Thief-in-the-Laws,” those at the top of the criminal hierarchy. Inmate Sergei explains that the sailing ships on his torso represent a “roaming life.” A pirate symbolizes a robbery. A skull suggests murder. With a youthful smirk and articulate bravado, felon Aleksei explains that the Celtic cross on his shoulder “means I was leading a life that sooner or later would lead to a tragic end.”
Indeed. These men are human, but they’re obviously not saints. While “Mark of Cain” chooses not to focus on their crimes, Lambert provides a few shocking examples. Semyon, a hairy man-mountain who winces when a fly lands on his cheek, describes how he decapitated three grave robbers found desecrating his mother’s remains.
Even behind bars, these convicted lawbreakers still walk a tightrope concerning what is permissible. Sporting searing, light-blue eyes and pock marked cheeks, Aleksandr is known for his expertise as a tattoo artist, even though he admits that the practice is forbidden. “This machine is my ticket to life here,” he says of the tattoo gun he wields to work his magic. “It makes no difference to me what I tattoo, as long as they pay.”
Tattoos aren’t the only medium inmates choose to let their creative juices flow. “Mark of Cain” is divided into different sequences through – literally – “title cards” fabricated by the prisoners themselves. “The symbols are from a deck of traditional Russian playing cards; the equivalent of our spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds,” explains Lambert. “The deck was given to me by the inmates at the White Swan prison. The ‘inks’ were made from the burnt sole of a boot for the black, and blood for the red. The paper is two pages from a book, bound together by the bread that (prisoners) are given to eat. Cards are forbidden in the prisons, so the deck is unfinished and was slipped surreptitiously into my hand as I left the cell.”
Like most great documentaries, a thousand subtexts lurk beneath Lambert’s footage. First and foremost, “Mark of Cain” might be about Russian prison tattoos. But it’s also about the atrocious state of that country’s dilapidated penal system. Watered-down soups in tin bowls are handed through door-slots. We hear of patients afflicted with dysentery after eating bread made from bad flour. Prison reform activists describe the “cell press,” a form of torture in which several staff-selected roommates are forced into the room of a troublemaking prisoner. Eventually, this suffocating ritual leads to the miscreant breaking down under pressure. One offender describes time served in the White Swan, a particularly hellish penitentiary where he witnessed a suicidal peer throw himself onto a table saw.
Such conditions force viewers to weigh the inmates’ misdeeds against their miserable living conditions. Is the arrangement a fair trade-off? Our loyalties shift. We admire their will power and creativity, only to become appalled by their remorseless caste system. “Downcasts,” the weaker and often younger of the bunch, often become sexual slaves of the stronger “thief-in-the-laws.” The inferiority of these violated underlings is displayed via facial tattoos reading “SLAVE.” It’s another depressing reminder that these men are here for a reason.
Even so, it’s difficult not to care. The blue-eyed baby face of Aleksei, who sports a crucifix tat on the back of his hand, conveys the weathered wisdom of a young man who has seen more than he should have to. The eyes of Slava, in for murder, appear both worried and stoic, with brows that slant north at the apex. “Every face left an impression on me,” confirms Lambert. “And when you edit a film you spend so much time with the material that you know each frame by heart. So these faces are seared into my memory.”
The faces aren’t entirely male, either. Lambert also documents female prisons, confirming that tat art flourishes in estrogen-heavy provinces, as well. “The women talked more about relationships than the man did,” the director informs. “And the dynamic between the guards and the inmates was more uncomfortable in the women’s prison. The women’s prison was less crowded, but otherwise, they were quite similar.”
Above all else, “Mark of Cain” shows how art provides meaning to lives bereft of options or hope. It’s a concept that Lambert can certainly empathize with. Sporting two tattoos herself – one a Tiger Lilly, the other a crow – the director of “Mark of Cain” has left her own marks on the world of cinema through several short films. Lambert has also taken on photography and screenwriting. In fact, she recently scripted an episode of “Deadwood,” the popular western series airing on HBO, and has recently completed a crime-story screenplay.
It’s clear that few things frighten Lambert, and that there are few things she can’t do. “Mark of Cain,” made for $90,000 dollars, would never exist were it not for her daring spirit. What a shame, then, that the film has yet to find the wide release granted other groundbreaking documentaries like “Hoop Dreams,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Murderball.” It’s certainly the equal of those heralded movies, and has amassed an impressive list of awards and nominations. Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, “Mark of Cain” also received an honorable mention from the French Association of Journalism. It won the Silver Documentary award at the Atlantic City Film Festival. Snippets from the film were featured on TV’s Nightline.
“The film has not yet had a theatrical release,” says Lambert, “which I would very much like for it to have. It has never been aired (in its entirety) on US television, which I would also like to see happen. It has been aired on European Discovery and it was in several film festivals including the Amsterdam International festival and the Margaret Mead festival.”
“Mark of Cain” has also aired on Russian television, where Lambert says it was well received. “I am often contacted by people who have either sat in the prisons or have family members that have. I am always very moved by what these people have to say.”
The finest documentary films act as vicarious guides through life-changing, thought-provoking territories that might otherwise go unexplored. They force us to look at reality with a different perspective. They teach us about how human beings live – exposing complexities and layers previously overlooked. “Mark of Cain” succeeds on each of these levels. It’s a film like no other.
KJ Doughton resurrects reels and breathes life back into films currently on life support and verging on extinction. Applying his “rave resuscitation” to movies at risk of fading into obscurity due to old age, faltering promotional systems, premature delivery, societal stigma, or a runty box-office take, he advocates a second chance for flatlining films too important to die.
Posted on November 10, 2006 in Features by KJ Doughton
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE MARK OF CAIN
- SIX DEGREES OF DECORATION: INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER ALIX LAMBERT
- “SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO” ON THEATRICAL RELEASE TOUR THIS FALL
- HOT HOUSE
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