In 2001, soon after Mark Franchetti arrived in Russia as the Sunday Times correspondent, he went on a remarkable assignment to Penal Colony 56. It was the first time any journalist, let alone a foreign reporter, had gained access. It was the beginning of an unusual relationship that Mark forged with the prison governor, Subkan Dadashiov.
Mark and Nick Read met working on a documentary for the BBC: ‘Britain’s Most Wanted’ about Andrei Lugovoi, who was accused of the murder & polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in the UK. The film was widely acclaimed, and Mark and Nick forged a uniquely collaborative filmmaking partnership, going on to develop several more films together.
Both were committed to finding new audiences and platforms for their films, and became fascinated by the possibilities of longer form story-telling, and the potential of making feature length documentaries for the cinema. They discussed the possibility of re-visiting Penal Colony 56 in February 2012, and a phone call to the governor suggested that he would agree.
Every single man there is a murderer. Some mad, some bad, and some who just lost their minds in the wrong place and time. This first trip was scheduled at just 10 days. After meeting nearly 100 of the 260 inmates in the first few days, instinct had to guide us to the strongest characters – but then there was a feast of riches.
Visually as the cameraman, Nick was intent on capturing the claustrophobia and textures of this decaying institution, built in Soviet times, full of atmosphere. There was never a moment of silence there – the air filled with human sounds, and of locks turning, doors slamming.
One of the first ‘lifers’ Mark & Nick met was confined to a single man cell, 23 hours a day for the rest of his life. Yet, he told us, he was ‘too busy to talk to us’. Initially we thought him one of the mad, but in time we learnt that one of the main survival skills for these prisoners is a strict regime. To disturb it was unthinkable for this inmate, and we regrettably were unable to persuade him to take part.
Returning to see our original cast meant that Mark could draw them out even more in interview, to fulfill a mission to see ‘inside their souls’ while looking at the whites of their eyes. Eventually though, we could leave – most of the prisoners will remain with little hope of release until their dying day.
Most of all we hope that the testimony of these forgotten men, set in the unique atmosphere of their remote habitat, provides a story that will live long in the memory.