Alone in Four Walls [subtitled]

Alone in Four Walls

Alone in Four Walls is a documentary about a reform school-type institution for boys somewhere in rural Russia. 80%-90% of it consists of watching the inmates go through their day and hearing them interviewed, either on camera or as voiceovers. The other 10%-20% is interviews with parents of the boys and scenes from those homes, a tiny bit with the mother of a victim of one of the crimes of one of the boys, and a few Russian street scenes and such for atmosphere.

There is little or nothing in the way of background, context, etc. No interviews with academics, observers, experts. Really nothing from the people who run and work at the institution (though they’re bit players in a few scenes—dishing out food, providing dental care, etc.)

So it’s pretty good at taking you inside that world and giving you a feel for what life is like there, but it’s not as good for providing facts and statistics and information and such.

One wonders, for instance, how typical this institution is, whether it’s an unusually humane one or an unusually bad one. From the fact that it’s not a hidden camera type exposé, but clearly one where the filming and interviews were done with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the institution, I would think it’s a place that thinks of itself as a model institution and welcomes publicity. But beyond very general speculation like that, I don’t know.

For what it is, I’d say the film is at least fairly well done. But how you respond to a movie like this is really just a matter of whether this subject matter appeals to you, whether you can emotionally connect with kids in a situation like that and want to understand their lives better. For me, I was somewhere in the middle. A lot of it was slow for me and it was kind of a chore watching it, but some of it did draw me in and interest me.

I suspect some of why it didn’t connect with me even more is the subtitle thing, and the whole issue of being a different culture. Granted, some of it’s universal—kids are kids—but I maybe would have been emotionally into the film a higher percentage of the time if I had had even more a sense of that could be me, or that could be a child of mine, or that could be a child I know.

My initial reaction to the early scenes was that this place is a hellhole, that it’s a prison and not a very nice one. Or at least a really oppressive military school type place.

Some of that is just that certain things push my buttons. I am fiercely protective of my autonomy and individuality. The idea of regimented behavior, externally imposed discipline, conformity to ritualistic group behavior, etc. is something I respond to like an extremely claustrophobic person reacts to the idea of being locked in a closet, or a coffin.

That’s no exaggeration. Seeing these kids marching in unison, doing chores in identical ways with identical blank expressions (or really imagining myself compelled to function that way under threat of worse tortures) hits me on a visceral level like that.

I know most people are all for that stuff, but that makes it worse. I’m more sickened knowing that people would be applauding the imposition of “discipline,” the notion of “breaking” folks early to impress upon them the need to “play by the rules” and to understand that there are a lot of things you have to do in life (e.g., wear a tie) for no reason whatsoever except that “that’s the way it’s done” and you need to signal that you’ll automatically and unthinkingly conform to such group norms and expectations.

But then as it got deeper into the movie, my attitude softened somewhat. Because other than the military school conformity and ritual type stuff (which continued to bother me), it otherwise seems like there’s more good to the place than bad. Or at least that life there is no worse, and probably somewhat better, than in comparable institutions for criminals (adult and minor) in supposedly more advanced countries, certainly including the U.S.

It really does function in part as a school, with regular academic classes and such. There’s soccer and other sports. Jobs skills and habits are taught. They get three square meals and a bed to sleep in. At least in the interactions that are shown, the adults in charge don’t seem all that abusive or evil, but if anything lean more toward social workers than drill sergeants.

Hearing the children recount their crimes, talk about their experiences in the institution, read aloud letters they’ve written to their families, etc. at times is emotionally powerful. I don’t know that any of them come across as particularly evil or a “lost cause,” though some of their crimes are really awful. Some are trying to make the most of what opportunities exist here and turn their lives around. Some still cry every night, incarcerated here away from their family. They’re kids, and if anything they come across as even younger than they are.

One thread that runs through many of their stories is that as flawed and as unfree and as unpleasant as this place is, it represents a step up from the life many of them had before. A lot of these kids came from extreme poverty, from abusive parents, from violent and dangerous areas. In some ways contemplating that life that you don’t see is even sadder than watching the incarcerated life of these children that you do see.

Their crimes range from petty theft and general mischief and misdemeanors, to cold blooded murder. Mostly the crimes aren’t talked about in detail, but one exception is a case of a 13 year old and a 15 year old who murdered another kid from their circle that they were convinced had ratted on them. After hearing their take on the events, we also hear from the mother of the victim, at her son’s grave. The boy was beaten with a brick repeatedly in the face. One of his eyes was found on his cheek; pieces of his shattered jaw were missing, having likely been picked up by scavenger birds.

The mother thinks the boys should be dead. The 15 year old was sentenced to six years in an adult institution. The 13 year old, one of the boys interviewed most for this film, was sentenced to two years and three months in this institution.

There’s so much in this film that seems to me of the “there are no answers; there are no good options” type. Just as the poor will always be with us, people will always use violence and cruelty and coercion against each other. Which is not to say we shouldn’t work to lessen it any way we can. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

I was actually leaning toward the view that, even though I could never endorse incarcerating children and treating them this way, it may be that from a consequentialist standpoint, it’s as good an option as any. Or at least as good as any option that could realistically be adopted, given the rage and emotionalism people feel in the face of crime.

Then at the very end of the film, comes a text statement that 91% of the kids incarcerated here go on to serve at least one term in adult prison after their release.

So the military school type discipline I hate, and the more social work type constructive stuff I was heartened to see, evidently don’t do a damn thing. Oh well.


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