________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007


Prisoners of Beckett.

Michka Saäl (Writer & Director). Éric Michel & Joanne Carrière (NFB Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
85 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9106 256.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Jocelyn A. Dimm.

*** /4

The opening scene begins with a close up of the walls of a prison. These are the walls of the Kumla prison in Sweden. The camera eye takes in the concrete, the absence of colour, the sharp edges of the barb wire, and the locked gates. This place is real, and the story is a true one.

     Prisoners of Beckett, a film by Michka Saäl, tells the true story of a group of prisoners who became actors and staged the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. The prisoner/actors identify so strongly with the characters in the play that they find it easy to become those characters, both the characters and prisoners waiting with deep purpose. The play is so successful that the warden is able to get special permission to allow the prisoner/actors to perform outside of the prison. One of the prisoner/actors comments that it feels like freedom, but it is not really freedom. “The play is the only reason we are outside the prison walls. This is not enough.” The prisoner/actors are not allowed to see their family members when they are performing outside of the prison. It seems almost inevitable they will attempt an escape, and they do, disappearing for over two years.

     The film, as much an aesthetic piece as it is a documentary, presents a variety of perspectives as it weaves through the story of the Kumla prison’s play production. For the most part, the camera focuses on the director, Jan Jonson, whose passion about the project is unyielding. The film is a montage of short vignettes highlighted by the music of Bob Dylan: Beckett’s play staged outside against the backdrop of the prison wall, views of the prison, interviews of Jonson, the prisoner/actors, and prison officials, the troupes’ journey outside the prison walls to perform in local cities, and the ever-startling disruption of Jonson’s one-man show narrating his experiences about working on this project. He dramatically moves about a formal stage infusing emotion throughout his story-telling monologue surrounding himself with several giant black and white photographs of the prisoner/actors in costume and one portrait of Samuel Beckett sitting, watching.

     This film may be appealing to older students studying theatre, social behaviour, even what it means to be incarcerated. Although the film has insightful moments sensitively captured by film maker, Micha Saäl, in the faces and speeches of the prisoner/actors, the warden, and director, Jan Jonson, the film is quite long and perhaps focuses a little too often on the director and not enough on the prisoner/actors themselves. Some of the slower moving pieces, such as Jonson’s long walk through a cemetery seem to pull the viewer away from the actual intent of the film. Is this about the prisoners of Beckett or a documentary about the director? Even having said that, director Jan Jonson is much of the reason why the project was such a success, and the film is quite appealing as the prisoner/actors are startling authentic in and out of character. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the songs of Bob Dylan seem to be a good match as well.


Jocelyn A. Dimm is a sessional instructor and PhD Candidate at the University of Victoria where she teaches drama education and young adult literature in the Faculty of Education.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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