CORONA, LA

Prison Pageant

(Upcoming screening information for La Corona can be found here, in preparation for the film’s fall television premiere on HBO-Cinemax.)

For many, beauty pageants are a celebration of individuality and, in turn, a source of great national pride. This is no more evident than in Colombia, where violence and danger run rampant. While Colombia is filled with pageants of increasingly head-scratching varieties (Miss Potato and Miss Jelly, anyone?), there is one that stands out from the rest. That would be the annual contest that takes place in Bogota’s National Women’s Penitentiary. Yes, that kind of penitentiary. Though this sounds like the set-up for a Christopher Guest-esque satire of beauty pageants and celebrity culture in general, with La Corona, co-directors Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega have a much more human aim. By respecting their real-life subjects and giving them the opportunity to share their troubled back stories, we become deeply invested in their quest for the crown. In the process, we are able to grasp that this isn’t merely a frivolous desire to win a contest. It’s a chance for these incarcerated women to feel free once again.

While that’s all well and good, the fact remains that this is still a beauty pageant, and with it brings the bizarre accoutrements that make these gatherings such bizarre spectacles (television cameras, celebrity judges, passionate audiences). Thankfully, Micheli and Vega aren’t here to soften the oddness of the situation. How can they, when their subjects are representing cellblocks instead of countries or cities? Yet by concentrating on the individual stories of four main contestants, their film becomes a human interest story, first and foremost. That said, there is enough material for multi-faceted critiques of truly hefty proportions, including our modern world’s shameful culture of celebrity obsession, the inherent racism that continues to plague the planet, the horrific economic conditions that drive young mothers to commit capital crimes, and the depressing list continues. But like two of 2008’s most exceptional non-fiction achievements (Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze and Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths), Micheli and Vega choose to focus on the basic in-the-moment humanity of their situations, which allows these films to speak to a wide variety of complex issues without ever losing their personal narrative thrust.

In the same way that a fictional film recreation of this very same subject matter would have to be executed with great care to keep it from slipping into parody, Micheli and Vega had to be careful as well. Micheli, who shot Lauren Greenfield’s harrowing Thin and previously directed her own documentary feature, Double Dare, shows her experience behind the camera, alongside co-cinematographer Vega. If they didn’t spend a lot of time gaining the trust of their subjects before filming them, it feels like they did. While the interviews given to Vega and Micheli find the young women at their most candid and fragile, the unobtrusive camera work in the everyday footage is just as intimate. Vega and Micheli place viewers inside that prison, making it harder for us to take a detached, condescending view of the prisoners.

Nominated for a Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar, La Corona is a dramatic work of entertainment that captures the preposterous and complicated world in which we live. For every American viewer who wants to laugh at this spectacle, there’s an even more unbelievably grotesque kiddie pageant taking place just around the corner.

— Michael Tully

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