With Hollywood bruised from a generally lacklustre summer, audiences may be looking for something a little more outside the box. When it comes to category-defying films JAIL CAESAR has the potential to plug that gap and have an elephant stand on the plug for good measure. Also known as STRINGCAESAR (due to the overarching theme of string theory) it started life as a play about the early life of the controversial Roman ruler and features Derek Jacobi and Alice Krige (STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, THOR: THE DARK WORLD). But what gives the project its edge is the setting – Ancient Rome has been transposed to the prison system and many of the actors are inmates. Shot on the hoof by writer/director Paul Schoolman at institutions in South Africa, Canada and Cardiff, the project has the energy of interactive theatre and the look of a Dogme Collective entry.
The tangled plot follows Caesar (Warren Adler) as he makes his way from political pawn to ruthless dictator, encountering dangerous figures along the way such as Crassus (Grant Swanby, STARSHIP TROOPERS 3) and The Pirate Captain (Krige). Though it may appear strange to try and squeeze this epic, globe-spanning true story into cramped prison corridors there are clear parallels between the squalid confinement and the opulence of Rome, as the synopsis explains:
The prisons are a microcosm of the real world where drugs, sexual liaisons, gangs, deals, allegiances, fear, anger and fleeting happiness are the order of the day. This is the world where young Caesar fights for survival. This is Rome. A Prison.
Jacobi plays Sulla, a manipulative general, in a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. Recognizable from similar roles in I, Claudius and GLADIATOR, Jacobi surprises by delivering a turn that could almost be called edgy – not what you’d expect perhaps from one of the pillars of the British acting establishment. Schoolman found working with him in the confines of Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Prison hectic but rewarding:
“I thought he was brilliant… I can say that because I was doing the camera as well, so I was so ‘in it’ that in a sense you can’t really see what’s going on because you’re part of the action, when you’re that close… So actually when I saw him in rushes and then we were cutting him in, he took my breath away.”
Krige was also impressed at what Jacobi brought to the role.
“I think it’s a really wonderful film performance. What he does as Sulla is striking… It’s someone who you think is on the verge of psychosis. It’s a dangerous performance in my estimation.”
Schoolman set out on his journey to bring JAIL CAESAR to the screen in the 1980s, a time when a film of this nature was seen as pie in the sky. Yet with a dedicated team behind him, including the celebrated actor John Kani (A DRY WHITE SEASON), he finally managed to get it realized. This was in no small part due to evolutions in equipment that often turned him into a micro film crew:
“One thing I don’t quite understand… when I went into Pollsmoor all I actually had was me and a camera… When I go to shorts festivals especially, it seems to me young directors will surround themselves with as big a crew as they possibly can… they’ll have crews of hundreds and I don’t understand why. It’s the technology at the moment that is brilliant.”
The diverse reactions to the piece have in some ways vindicated Schoolman’s approach and achieved his aim of making something distinctive:
“Some people absolutely hate… well they don’t hate JAIL CAESAR, they’re just scared of it… In fact they won’t talk about it, they won’t say “we hate it”, they won’t talk about it… Which I find quite hilarious… They don’t know what to do, they’re in a state of total confusion… It’s more important to me to try and get out there my own perception of the world, not through ego, but simply because I think we need to start communicating with each other as clearly and honestly as we can, and I think that’s extremely difficult through a committee.”
As for Krige, she became a producer with co-star Adler and found the process to be truly challenging:
“It was an overwhelming experience, it was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever had… I certainly came away thinking the great majority of these individuals had never been given a means to channel their abilities. For a great majority of them there’s been trauma of one kind or another, at a very early point, or everything has been dislocated or fractured, within their social system and they’ve wound up where they are. There are individuals in the system who are doing their utmost to make rehabilitation effective, but that really should be the goal of it, so that people come out and they don’t reoffend. But the experience was life-changing for me and immensely inspiring, and as an actor it took me back to basics, I had to re-examine myself and my work process.”
Most importantly, JAIL CAESAR had an impact on the people whose environment it invaded. Prisoner Patrick Vrieslaar had been jailed at 22 after shooting two men in the notorious Cape Town flats. When he was transferred to Pollsmoor little did he realize the path his life would take as Schoolman arrived to shoot. Determined to get himself on the straight and narrow for the sake of his daughter, he volunteered his services to the team and ended up becoming a vital source of information with regards who to talk to and where to film. Adler went so far as to call him their “inside producer”. After his release, Vrieslaar entered the Film Industry Learner Mentorship (FILM), an organization set up to help people from deprived backgrounds enter the industry. Now he lights productions such as Starz’ Black Sails and even went on to the movie MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM starring Idris Elba. Ironically Mandela had been imprisoned at Pollsmoor. Charity The Turning Point Foundation was also established by JAIL CAESAR’s producers to help the incarcerated long term – its patrons include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and it will receive a large proportion of the profits.
It’s certainly divided opinion, but after collecting awards at major international film festivals the world is taking the result seriously and a general release for the movie is in the pipeline. The trailer is below: