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The Independent Culture
Films like True Stories' "Experiment of the Cross" (C4) make you wonder whether there might be some kind of economy of indignation. Is it a non-renewable resource, which we should husband for outrages we might be able to do something about? Do we each have a finite supply, which must be spread more thinly if we are to admit new atrocities to our personal museum of insupportability? The optimist would probably take exception to both suggestions, but even an optimist might admit that British television audiences are unusually well schooled in indignation, almost blase about the conventions of shock. If you were to ask people what they would see in a documentary about a boys' reform camp in Kazakhstan, for example, it's likely their imagination would match or exceed the reality. In Russia, on the other hand, audiences have led a more sheltered life - so that revelations of institutional brutality may have a scalding novelty. Certainly the establishments themselves haven't quite come to terms with a new order of openness. Taras Popov, a prison psychiatrist who recorded this footage on tape for "research purposes", was sacked from his post at the camp after a version of the film was shown on Russian television (though the same fate would probably face a National Health whistleblower here).

"Experiment of the Cross" began with a horror story - a young man recalling how he had fashioned a small cross out of barbed wire, wrapped it in bread and swallowed it, hoping it would open in his stomach and put him in hospital. The device worked prematurely, lodging in his throat, from where it had to be surgically extracted through a ragged incision in his neck.

This was an emblem of hopelessness, designed to make us ask how bad things would have to be before such an action appeared a rational choice. What we saw next didn't seem to provide an answer. It looked harsh, certainly - the sort of short, sharp shock regime which would have a Conservative conference salivating freely - but there was still a gap between that despairing bid for escape and the militaristic regime of drill and cleaning and steady verbal abuse. The narration talked of the "dehumanising processes of induction" as though they were something new, but they would have been familiar to anyone who has watched a military documentary in the last 10 years. Viewers with long memories may even recall a film about a Japanese drama school which involved very similar humiliations and an even more maniacal emphasis on hygiene as moral education.

But gradually the film built its case, revealing a society of primate simplicity, in which the strong beat the weak without intervention from the authorities. Unfortunately, it appeared to lack any primate sense of solidarity, even though one scene showed the inmates engaging in a bit of mutual grooming, hunting for the endemic lice. The internal baronies ran the camp, applying gruelling physical punishments and administering a caste system in which the untouchables - beaten and buggered at will - had no resort but suicide. "This is ordinary, it's like this everywhere," said one of the inmate-bosses, showing that he had absorbed the camp's lessons of pre-emptive brutality well, and reminding you that life for ordinary Russians is not much fun at the moment.

Given that punitive deprivation is a relative concept, it was hardly surprising that the regime was so grim. The self-mutilations (you were shown the disgustingly effective results of injecting gasoline into the skin) were mostly aimed, you realised, at seclusion from the self-made society of the prison, not at returning to the one outside. The final credits noted that eight inmates had died since the filming - three of whom were murdered. They also informed you that Amnesty International has taken up the case - a heartening demonstration that, even if individual reserves of outrage occasionally falter, there are organisations which won't let the supply dry up completely.

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