In their poignant documentary La Corona (The Crown), filmmakers Isabel Vega and Amanda Micheli take viewers inside the prison's heavily fortified walls, where preparations are underway for this highly anticipated and fiercely competitive event.

Televised beauty pageants are extremely popular in Colombia, sometimes attracting even higher ratings than World Cup soccer. National and local pageants are often the centerpiece of cultural festivals, and little girls dream of being the queen of their village one day. But even in Colombia, a beauty pageant in prison is unusual.

The film follows four very different contestants as they vie for the title of prison beauty queen: Maira, a steely 21-year-old former assassin; Viviana, a dreamy 24-year- old who has already served six years for guerilla activity; Angela, 23, a fiery professional thief and hustler from a black ghetto outside the city; and Angie, 22, the "new girl," a single mother who has just been arrested for gang-related robbery. As the competition nears and suspense builds, the women explain in their own words what brought each of them to this place and discuss the lives and loved ones they've left behind.

At the beginning of La Corona, each of the prison's six competing cell blocks has nominated a contestant to represent it in the pageant, with the frenzied preparations providing inmates a temporary escape from the crushing isolation and tedium of prison life. As the inmates rehearse traditional dance routines and struggle to create floats out of recycled scraps, prison officials solicit clothing donations from the outside for the three central competitions: talent, fantasy and evening gown. On the day of the competition, local celebrities, including soap opera stars, pop singers and talk-show hosts, come to the prison to judge the contestants. The final results practically spark a riot among the inmates in the losing cell blocks, each of whom believes its nominee to be a victim of gross injustice.

Many of the inmates are young, uneducated and extremely poor. As Colombian- born director Isabel Vega observes, "There is little access to birth control, and many of the inmates have children when they are very young. For a new mother, being separated from her children is torture. It also means she could lose custody to the state or the child's father."

To combat loneliness, some inmates explore romantic liaisons with other women in prison. Angela, one of the featured contestants in La Corona, has a serious girlfriend "on the inside," which complicates her desperate desire to go home to her family and a more traditional life.

The film raises provocative questions about the dire conditions that may drive so many women to criminal activity. The security of life in prison can offer an ironic stability. Director Amanda Micheli explains, "The number of Colombian women in prison has increased significantly in recent years. The country is in the midst of a bloody civil conflict, and many women whose husbands and brothers are killed or incarcerated turn to desperate measures to survive. While many of the women behind bars have committed crimes, because of the nature of the Colombian criminal justice system, the sentence does not always fit the offense."

Credits: Produced and Directed by Amanda Micheli & Isabel Vega; Edited by Carla Gutierrez and Luis Colina; Original Music by Camara Kambon; Associate Producers: Maritza Blanco and Luis Colina; Cinematography: Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega.

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