|Raindance Film Review: StringCaesar|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Saturday, 06 October 2012 10:24|
Director: Paul Schoolman
“As I sit in my cell barred and bolted… my soul finds release like a nomad… and wanders for me in the night.”
The words are written by Tony, an inmate at Dartmoor Prison, but they could easily belong to Julius Caesar. Long before he came to power, young Jules was dismissed as a loser, a waste of space, a homosexual. He grew up in a time of conflict and bloodshed. Dictators. Thugs. War. They’re the hallmarks of 80s BC Rome, but they could easily belong to modern day Dartmoor. Or Cardiff. Or Drumheller Pentientiary in Alberta. Or Pollsmoor Prison in South Africa, where Mandela was once held.
String theory says there are many alternate realities. StringCaesar, then, sees two of them collide behind bars around the world. Citizens wear orange jumpsuits, while rulers spark riots in the corridors and order murder in the yards.
It’s a potent atmosphere to explore young Caesar’s origins, casting hundreds of real inmates alongside a handful of professional actors. What’s the plot? That’s harder to say. Jumping around the world’s prisons, we meet tons of historical figures, from people’s politician Marius to the young plucky Caesar himself. The one who stands out? The psychotic Sulla, played by none other than Derek Jacobi. Sitting on top of inmates’ shoulders, he sentences people to death with typical deadpan menace – and the occasional evil laugh.
“They ask for mercy,” says one Roman advisor in a hushed whisper. Sulla pauses. “Then kill them quietly.”
Reveling in his deliciously nasty role, Jacobi fits right in among the heaving cast, which adds an overwhelming immediacy to the events. You won’t have a clue what’s going on – it all turns into one big blur after 10 minutes – and that’s a big problem, but in between the energetic editing, there are moments of strong tension and dialogue peppered throughout.
After been taken captive by pirates off Cilicia (led by the astonishing Nicola Hanekom), Caesar turns to look at the swarm of angry underlings. “They have a power, an energy,” he observes. “If you could funnel or tap that, they could take down kings. As it is… they’re wasted.”
That’s exactly what Paul Schoolman’s project has done: tapped that resource. The result is the kind of poetry you read earlier, an outburst that belongs to Tony, but could easily have been heard in early Rome.
A labour of love – and a struggle for both funding and approval amid uncooperative authorities and tons of prison regulations – StringCaesar has been on the go since 1984. 28 years later, Caesar Must Die is sweeping up the accolades at the Berlin Film Festival, but Schoolman’s project seems to showcase the same thing: the violent extremes to which men go to survive, the ugly formation of power and society and, most moving of all, the transformative power of art.
StringCaesar’s strands come together in a confusing rush. The script, co-written with the inmates, is a real slog, but the impact of what you’ve seen hits several hours later.
One guard at Pollsmoor tells the filmmakers: “These guys really won’t understand what they’ve done until they see the finish film. This prison is ruled by gangs. The communal cells have invisible lines on the floor. If somebody crosses a line into another gangs’ territory, they kill him. But working on the film they’re all walking everywhere and nobody’s even thinking about it.”