REHABILITATION / In viewing Vilnius prisoners serving life sentences, Exemplary Behaviour examines the paradox between justice and forgiveness.

Audrius Mickevičius and Nerijus Milerius’s Exemplary Behaviour is a highly cinematic, surprising look at the Lithuanian prison system through a very complicated lens. With powerful images and an evocative, often ambient sound design, the directors manage to create a work that feels quasi-religious in both spirit and tone.

A sacred quest

The film begins with the Mickevičius himself, who serves as voiceover narrator and on-camera guide, revealing the personal tragedy that brought him to the topic of incarceration in the first place – the murder of his older brother by two men, one of whom ended up taking full responsibility and received a decade-long sentence. After a mere five years, however, the killer was released due to, as the doc’s title alludes to, his «exemplary behaviour».

Here is where things take a turn for the unexpected, starting with another admission by the director/narrator – specifically that he’s chosen the path of forgiveness, of «embracing the pain». The stream-of-consciousness scenes that follow – from lifers operating machinery in the prison workshop, to a French philosopher (and former inmate) expounding on life behind bars, to surveillance footage – add up to a kind of inner journey made visible, a sacred quest.

Indeed, watching Exemplary Behaviour one gets the sense that Mickevičius is on a mission of seeking, of filming to find answers, even using the documentary process as a means to grieve. Mickevičius is looking to capture nothing less (and nothing more) than moments of humanity; signs of redemption behind those prison walls. The inmate he focuses on nearly exclusively, an older man who will never again experience life outside a cell, lovingly strokes a cat he’s adopted. He also reads from a list of items he’s ordered for his upcoming wedding – among them a touching «19 red roses» for his bride to be.

Exemplary Behaviour-documentary
Exemplary Behaviour, a film by Audrius Mickevičius & Nerijus Milerius

Soon Mickevičius’s camera is following the bride – right back to the women’s correctional facility she calls home. We learn the names of her five children, but not of the person she murdered. Later she’ll sing along to a tune while knitting in her tidy cell. The French philosopher calls guilt a «poisonous neurosis» that one must eventually leave behind, and warns against younger prisoners becoming more dangerous through incarceration’s «crime school».

Another inmate tends to bees. The camera pans the foreboding prison walls. There’s a deft cut from a Catholic service to surveillance images of the scene from a heaven-like view above. Ornaments are ritualistically hung on a Christmas tree in the prison yard.

Mediation of time

One of the most arresting sequences involves Mickevičius’s camera swiftly trailing the newlywed inmate, accompanied by a guard, from his workstation back to his cell. In voiceover, his similarly imprisoned wife reads the sweet longing words of a letter he has written her. And soon the director retakes the narration with a meditation on time – including the time when a prisoner grows another human inside himself.

exemplary behaviour is not something performed but the end result of positive life choices made.

This, perhaps, is what is most remarkable – that the film, at its core, is an exploration of what it means to shed one’s very identity and become something new. The lifers Mickevičius follows have almost no hope of freedom so their «exemplary behaviour» is not performed in narcissistic service to themselves, so to speak – not simply an act to demonstrate they are no longer a threat to society. On the contrary, those «evil» people who entered the prison so long ago actually no longer exist. These reborn men have decided to focus solely outside of themselves, be it crafting a sculpture of a miniature motorcycle that will bring a smile to a child’s face, or ordering those «19 red roses» rather than white because that’s the color his beloved desires.

Ultimately, exemplary behaviour is not something performed, but the end result of positive life choices made. It’s a lesson even those of us on the outside would do well to take to heart.