FILM / Stars in the eastern sky: American actresses inside a Siberian prison camp? Love in the gulags? Gregory Gransden reports on a unique culture clash

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Ulyana Nesterova, a 30- year-old single mother in prison for stabbing to death her live-in boyfriend, carefully primped her badly dyed blonde hair as she sat waiting for her cue - looking more like a seasoned performer than a convicted felon. Around her a film crew was getting ready to shoot a fight scene in the barracks, and three actresses in prison smocks talked in low voices with a group of real convicts lounging nearby.

The set was a women's prison camp in the Siberian town of Kongur, 1,200km east of Moscow, where Nesterova is serving a six- year sentence. Along with 20 other prisoners, she was part of the cast of an independent Russian-American co-production shot in the camp this summer.

'I never thought acting was so hard,' Nesterova said. She had just arrived on the set after a gruelling eight-hour shift in the camp's boot factory - forced labour is still a big part of Russian prison life - and she would spend another five hours working on the shoot.

The movie, tentatively entitled That Kind of Story, is the first - and possibly last - feature film ever shot in a women's prison camp in Russia, using real prisoners as extras and supporting cast. Three Americans and a Russian were the only professional actors in the production.

'We're not glossing over prison life,' said Evan Brenner, one of the film's producers. 'The fact that we've spent so much time in this gulag means we've soaked up a lot of the nuances of what it means to be incarcerated in Russia, and a lot of these ideas go into the film. Since we're working with the women, we can turn around and say: what would you do in this situation, if one prisoner threatened the other? How would you fight?'

The script is about a woman who goes to prison for killing her unfaithful husband, then later falls in love with a guard and escapes with him. But the narrative occupies a minor place in the film, which is mainly concerned with the minutiae of day-today existence in the camp and the harsh, regimented lives of its inhabitants. They live in squat red-brick barracks, in long unventilated rooms where up to 45 women sleep in simple metal bunks. Most inmates work in the boot factory, where the air is thick with the stench of raw leather and curing chemicals that leave hands chafed and raw. Some work in the boiler- room of the camp's central heating system, shovelling coal into a furnace. There are no safety precautions, no protection against the sulphurous coal dust, which gets into the women's pores and eyes and lungs. Tuberculosis is common.

The women find what solace they can. They drink 'chefir', a murky beverage made from almost equal quantities of black tea and water, which they consume as a kind of drug. They shorten the hems of their shapeless navy blue prison-issue skirts, turning them into tight mini-skirts. They wear make-up bought on the camp's black market and bleach their hair with laundry bleach. And although lesbianism is officially prohibited in the camp, most of the women have lovers. This proved to be a sore point for the prison authorities, who strongly objected to the film-makers depicting lesbian relationships in the camp. The director, however, was determined to deal with the issue and it was decided to shoot the film's one lesbian love scene - which takes place in the boiler room - in secret, in the dead of night. But the camp is riddled with informants and word of the scene leaked out, causing an uproar that almost prompted the warden to shut down the production and evict the crew.

As controversial as the scene itself was the fact that the crew used a real prisoner to act alongside an American actress in the scene. 'I wanted to show that even under these conditions, with all the dirt, the forced labour and the administration constantly trying to break up couples and punish them, love can still arise,' said Natasha Kudryashova, the inmate who acted in the scene.

For Kudryashova, who was a lesbian before she went to jail, life in the camp has been a paradoxically liberating experience because she does not have to conceal her sexual orientation as she did in the outside world. She agreed to perform in the love scene as a sort of political statement. 'This film is important,' she said. 'Glasnost hasn't appeared where it should have. Let people see that love and tenderness among women isn't dirty or indecent.'

This was not the only issue that caused the film crew to run foul of the authorities. The film shoot created fierce jealousy among the inmates who were not involved in the production. At one point two prisoners got into a savage fistfight over the film. According to associate producer Mark Grandsard, the prison authorities accused the crew of 'upsetting the harmony of the prison'.

The prison administration also made life difficult by extorting ever larger bribes to allow the shoot to continue. Initially, the crew was allowed to film in the camp for only a nominal fee. Later, though, various officials on several occasions threatened to evict the crew unless the producer donated various 'gifts,' including a minibus, two jeeps, video equipment and other valuables.

Sometimes the vagaries of prison life itself obstructed the shoot - one scene was delayed because the prisoner who was supposed to be in it had been put in solitary confinement. Then there was the close and occasionally complex relationship between the film crew and the prisoner-actresses. The director, Yuri Torokhov, gave the women tea and cigarettes in lieu of a salary. At one point he offered to pay them cash as well but they declined, saying they didn't want to be bought. 'Each of them works with us out of their own interest. But most importantly, we give them companionship,' he said.

Kathryn Mederos, the film's New York-based co-author and lead actress, developed a close friendship with the prisoner Nesterova. But the prison authorities, catching wind of this, tried to actively discourage the relationship. When Mederos gave Nesterova some scallions to supplement her bland prison diet, and Nesterova was called in to the warden's office and severely scolded for making friends with foreigners. 'I feel very attached to Gulya,' Mederos said of Nesterova. But she added: 'Every now and then when I'm hugging her, I think: Wait a minute. This is a murderer.'

Her co-star, Midori Nakemura, echoed this thought. 'There are so many restrictions, I can't call it friendship,' she said of her relationship with the convicts. 'I have great affection for many of the women, and I respect and admire them, but I never, never forget what they've done.'

For her part, Nesterova spoke of Mederos with affection and a certain wonderment. 'The most interesting thing is just talking to Kathryn,' she said. 'I never thought my destiny would lead me to an American actress.'