Synopsis by Mark Deming
UF-91/9 is a women's prison camp in Siberia that's home to approximately one thousand women convicted of a wide range of crimes. UF-91/9 is as grey and soulless as one would expect from a prison, but for one day a year the inmates are given an opportunity to enjoy a taste of glamour. UF-91/9 hosts an annual beauty pageant, "Miss Spring," in which the women get the chance to show off outfits they've made themselves and display talent for the other inmates. While participation is entirely voluntary, the inmates don't need much encouragement to join up, as it is one of the only fun actitivities they are able to enjoy during the year. Parole officers look favorably upon participation in camp activities, which is an extra incentive for participants eager to impress prison administrators. Filmmaker Maria Yatskova offers an inside look at UF-91/9 and the "Miss Spring" competition in the documentary Miss Gulag, which focuses primarily on three women, two of whom are competing for the title. Tatiana Dasaeva, who entered a state-run boarding school during her teens, is doing time for her part in a robbery at a gas station, though since ending up behind bars she's gained a new determination to turn her back on a life of crime. Yulia Lutzhak was convicted on drug charges (like nearly half of her fellow inmates), and welcomes the opportunity to feel pretty again, if only for a day. And Natalia Patalakhova, convicted of armed assault against a drug dealer, actually won her parole seven months before the "Miss Spring" competition. Her dreams of a new life after leaving UF-91/9 are contrasted with the tough realities of life for a convicted felon just out of prison. Producers Irina Vodar and Raphaela Neihausen presented Miss Gulag at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival, where it received its world premiere. The film's North American debut was at the 2007 Silverdocs Film Festival, a festival for documentary cinema sponsored in part by the American Film Institute.