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Much to be learnt from inmates’ approach

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The project StringCaesar has been a labour of love for its makers. The film has been more than two decades in the making and is set, and was filmed, in a prison. Pollsmoor Prison, to be exact.

It has taken a circuitous journey of workshops and funding crises through prisons in England, Wales, the US, Canada and SA, as film-makers worked with prison inmates and guards around the world.

Writer/director Paul Schoolman started the process in 1984 when he received permission from the British Home Office to do film workshops in Dartmoor Prison in England. Through a long process he has travelled the world, working in prisons with seasoned actors Alice Krige, Derek Jacobi and Julian Glover on the script for a film based on the early life of Julius Caesar.

This film interrogates issues of power and manipulation and in the finished product local filmgoers will recognise John Kani, Bo Petersen, Nicola Hanekom and Gretha Fox.

The name StringCaesar references the string theory, specifically the existence of multiple dimensions giving rise to the idea that, given a specific set of choices, this could have been a possible history for Julius Caesar.

While 95 percent of the filming was done in Pollsmoor, the film is fleshed out with footage from the UK and Canada. Workshops started in Pollsmoor in 2004 and they started shooting the film in Cardiff in 2007, with shooting in Pollsmoor taking place in 2007.

The feature film debuts at this year’s National Arts Festival on the Thinkfest programme.

Talking from London, Schoolman said it was a very tightly scripted process, but workshops with the inmates who acted in the film helped to form this script.

Producer/actress Krige said she found Schoolman’s way of inviting participation from the actors to be particularly unique.

“He really did invite participation from the actors in a way that made it feel as if it was all happening in the moment. It’s not as if he came in with preconceived ideas. He allowed the actors to bring their own understanding of what was happening. Mostly they were encouraged to bring themselves to the table and that doesn’t happen as freely on most sets.”

While they originally wanted to shoot in several locations, issues of permission became a sticky point and a planned documentary feature around the process will add insight into the powerplay at work behind the scenes in various prisons around the world.

While Schoolman was initially worried that coming out of an English filming tradition would hamper his communication with SA prisoners, that didn’t last long and he was impressed by their cohesion as a group.

“Their way of working together as a group was much quicker. Here, solitary confinement really is a punishment. In England they work as close groups, but I’d never seen people work so quickly and harmoniously together before.”

Schoolman describes the finished product as quite an immersive experience.

“You’re not meant to follow every character. I wanted to make a film that showed what it feels like for a 14-year-old to be surrounded by gangs and gang violence, in a prison or whatever. It’s often a chaotic experience and people have to make choices.

“People say it’s hard to watch, but I didn’t go in making a film that was going to be easy to watch. But, if I could only make one film, I’m privileged to have made this one.”

“You mustn’t give up on people because they have a difficult start, or on a society because they having a difficult phase. We’re all here to learn.

“These men are living in terrible conditions in prisons and if they can learn to work together, with the officers and the inmates, to create something which many people consider an interesting work, we can learn, too,” Schoolman said.

• StringCaesar will be screened at the Blue Lecture Theatre, Eden Grove, on the Rhodes Campus in Grahamstown on Monday, July 2 at 4.30pm. Check www.nationalartsfestival.co.za for further details.


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