National Film Board of Canada, with Qu4tre
par Quatre films
ADR Productions and Arte France, 2005
DVD, 85 mins, col.
Distributors website: http://www.nfb.ca.
Reviewed by Kathryn Adams
are often far more colourful than the
Wilson, Warden, Kumla Prison 1985.
"Prisoners of Beckett,"
a film by Michka Saäl, is a true
account of a group of inmates in a Swedish
prison who stage a performance of Samuel
Becketts black comedy, Waiting
For Godot, both inside and outside
the prison walls. Inspired and guided
by their exuberantly passionate director
and producer, Jan Jonson, the men embark
upon an experience that not only opens
their world to Beckett and the parallels
his play has with their own existences
but, in an ironic twist, also paves the
way for their escape.
The film opens with interior and exterior
shots of Kumla Prison. Accompanying the
footage of barbed wire, sealed off passageways,
barred windows, and claustrophobic concrete
walls is one of the many Bob Dylan songs
featured throughout the film. This immediately
sets up the haunting and melancholic feel
that permeates the entire film and will
remind any lapsed Dylan fans of the emotive
power his music still holds when aligned
with images of despair and deprivation.
Speaking to a camera from a formal stage
setting surrounded by black and white
photographs of Samuel Beckett and two
of the prisoner/actors in their roles
as Estragon and Vladimir, the intense
and animated Jonson acts out his recollections
of his experience at Kumla Prison. This
staged show within a show
technique is extraordinarily dynamic and
effective and gives this film its distinctive
Jonson speaks passionately of his admiration
for Beckett, whom he eventually meets
through his work at the prison, and of
the friendships and heartfelt connections
he made with the prisoners and their Warden,
Lennart Wilson. During one of his own
performances in a production of Waiting
For Godot in Stockholm, Jonson remembers
the audience member who said,
take your play, your text,
your tie, your furnitures and give it
to my boys in Kumla
are you talking about the
inmates from the Kumla Prison?...who are
you?" asked Jonson.
"I am the Warden."
Original footage of the prisoner/actors
rehearsing within the prison grounds by
Jösta Hagelback (poet and filmmaker
who also appears in the documentary) in
1985 is interspersed with interviews with
prison officials, a journalist, Lennart
Wilson, and most intriguingly three of
the five prisoners who played the roles
of the characters in Becketts play.
Wilson, whose compassion and foresight
turned the entire project at Kumla into
a reality, explains how he thought, it
would be great if we could put on a play
that allow[ed the] inmates to express
themselves." He also sings a rendition
of "I did it My Way" - an entertaining
snippet and insight into the life and
personality of an admirable character.
But it is the inmates who steal the show,
so to speak.
When Jan Jonson went to Kumla to discuss
Becketts play with the prisoner/actors
for the first time, one of the prisoners
exclaimed, after reading the manuscript,
this is not a play
is my fucking diary!" These men could
easily identify with a story that was
essentially about despair and frustration
and of course, the never- ending act of
waiting. As one of them explains, "
prison you wait for things longer than
Criminals or not, these spectacularly
flawed, melancholic, and talented individuals
will win you over and leave you wanting
to learn more about their lives. It is
a shame the documentary loses its focus
and becomes more about the life of Jan
Jonson than about these intriguing outcasts
of society, who, as one prison official
had talent for more
than just crime." Although this doesnt
have an enormously negative impact on
the film, it weakens the essence of the
story and the core of the film becomes
The setting for Waiting For Godot
has often been described as a place where
Godot Is Not. Oddly for director Jan Jonson,
life imitates art, when his cast fails
to appear for one of their scheduled performances,
and he finds himself waiting and waiting
in a theatre where his actors are not.
This distinctive, original and noteworthy
film is highly recommended viewing. Considering
it has been 20 years since the event took
place, it has been well worth waiting
for . . . .