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Prisoners of Beckett

by Michka Saäl, Director
National Film Board of Canada, with Qu4tre par Quatre films
ADR Productions and Arte France, 2005
DVD, 85 mins, col.
Sales: $99.95
Distributor’s website: http://www.nfb.ca.

Reviewed by Kathryn Adams


"…criminals are often far more colourful than the average person…" — Lennart 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 Beckett’s 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 edge.

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 Beckett’s 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 Beckett’s play with the prisoner/actors for the first time, one of the prisoners exclaimed, after reading the manuscript, "…this is not a play…it 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, "…in prison you wait for things longer than anyone else."

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 notes, "…had talent for more than just crime." Although this doesn’t have an enormously negative impact on the film, it weakens the essence of the story and the core of the film becomes fragmented.

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 . . . .



Updated 1st January 2008

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