The title, ‘The Mark of Cain,’ becomes obvious soon after the documentary starts. Cain, a biblical character, is remembered as a killer of his own brother and in the ‘Mark of Cain’ it’s the killers that get the most of the spotlight although we also encounter and get to hear people charged with robbery, hooliganism and assault. To make it broader and show the main subject covered deeper, people from the opposite side of the bars are heard, too: criminologists, ex-prisoners, directors of penitentiaries and family members of the prisoners.
It’s this juxtaposition, replayed on several levels, that seems the most interesting one to me: the prisoners talking and being talked about by the people who watch them closely; people deprived of freedom right next to those who this freedom have and yet every day return to prisons to do their jobs; rules/law-breakers discussing the laws they founded and decided to follow.
Obviously, the most important element of this film, this symbolical ‘mark of Cain’ that the stereotypes still want to associate with transgression, deviation, cruelty and lack of morals, is tattoos and they are shown here well.
Tattoos are discussed by both prisoners and their supervisors and criminologists and both sides agree that prison tattoos served as a powerful language of symbols, hidden meanings and order. Once upon a time it was enough to look at someone to know, right away, what crimes he committed, how long he served, what was his social position behind the bars, what were his interests and tastes. The key element is the past tense here, however, as both sides agree that the time of tattoos is actually over now; with so many changes over the last two decades, with the New Russia and the New Russians having been born and still growing, with new people coming into the Russian prisons, the old-timers, heavily covered and knowledgeable on the subject, insist that ‘those times have passed’ and that ‘with new youths [come] new tattoos’ and these new tattoos don’t carry enough symbolism with them to actually mean anything.
This relation, or rather lack thereof, between the old (filled with history and meanings) and the new tattoos (‘you have money, you have tattoos’) is another good example of how this documentary shows tattoos on different levels as exactly the same phenomenon, (growing popularity and easier access to tattoos stripe them off of their symbolism and mystery), takes place in the ‘real/free’ world. As quite rightly remarked one of the interviewed prisoners: ‘the zone is kind of model of a state, only the relations of people are exaggerated!’
The bigger part of the film focuses on male tattoos, showing and explaining the most popular/common symbols used, meanings behind them and the process of tattooing itself (as far from being sterile and safe as possible!) and just when you may start thinking that prison tattoos in Russia are only a male thing, the director takes us to a women prison and gives us a chance to see similarities and differences between the tattoos on men and women.
The last, and definitely very moving part of the film, is about regrets! As it turns out, the prisoners are not only perceptive enough to notice the relation between historical changes and their own lives but also be aware of obstacles their tattoos might pose for them in the future. Many of them regret their decisions and feel ashamed of their tattoos, sharing with us their fears, doubts and tips for DIY tattoo removal.
I would say that ‘The Mark of Cain’ approaches the people and their choices with a lot of respect and attention. The authors tried to stay objective and show the people and their lives from as many perspectives as possible. Tattoos are portrayed very well, both when it comes to their close-ups to see the details and when it comes to discuss what they really are about. It’s about the real thing and real people, so there’s no artificial, TV-stained glamour about it and there’s no wannabe stars in here (the ‘artist’ portrayed here has a tired, flawed face and hands stained with soot and yet he’s fascinating when he talks about his strategy for surviving in prison and when he expresses his pride of making good tattoos). After this whole ink-TV buzz, it’s nicely refreshing, authentic and informative.
The Mark of Cain, directed by Alix Lambert, March 2008;