Federal Penal Colony No. 56 is situated in central Russia, in the middle of a forest larger than Germany and a seven-hour drive from the nearest city. In winter, temperatures fall to 40 below zero. There are 260 prisoners serving out their sentences here, all of them for murder. Following tough negotiations, filmmakers Nick Read and Mark Franchetti managed to gain access to this isolated world, where they focused their meticulous eye for detail on the prisoner’s daily lives. The sounds of slamming doors, bars and locks accompany Read’s shots of cells and marked bodies in the blue light of the taiga. In the toughest block, the prisoners live alone in bare cells a mere five meters square (54 square feet), and get just an hour of fresh air each day. Elsewhere, groups of men live in a more domestic environment where the biggest challenge is not the isolation, but the internal hierarchy. In remarkably candid interviews, the men talk about their crimes and their punishments. How do they stop themselves from going mad in a place like this? What does freedom mean to them? Is penitence and forgiveness possible for their terrible deeds? The prison’s director of 26 years also has his say. He too is condemned to this godforsaken place, not as punishment, but by a contract.
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