With the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die screening at the LFF this week, Ivan Radford considers the mixed fortunes of another recent prison-set Caesar biopic.
This festival season, everyone is talking about Caesar Must Die. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s docu-drama, which follows rehearsals of Julius Caesar by a group of prison inmates, screens at the London Film Festival this week after a string of international festival appearances. At Berlin earlier in the year, the Mike Leigh-fronted jury awarded the film the Golden Bear, a move that was branded a 'major upset'.
The Taviani brothers began planning their production after seeing a prison performance of Dante's Inferno. Moved, they decided to bring that experience to the screen, fashioning a black-and-white humanist tale of politics and murder. And what better fit than the story of Caesar?
"We thought about Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which we love very much, for many reasons," the pair told audiences at the New York Film Festival. "Because it takes place in Rome, because its characters are assassins, killers, because there are plots to kill the emperor…" The prisoners saw the parallels too. "When we talked to them about it they said, 'Shakespeare is our friend because 500 years ago he already talked about our pains.'"
The Tavianis are following in the footsteps of another filmmaker: Paul Schoolman. The British director hailed his own jail-bound Julius in the oddly similar StringCaesar, which he shot in South Africa’s Pollsmoor Prison. Unlike the Tavianis' film, Schoolman shirks Shakespeare to tell the story of young Julius, before he rose to fame at the age of 33.
Following string theory, it proposes that the story of Caesar could take place in one of thousands of alternate universes. In Schoolman’s world, the fledgling Emperor is an inmate in the same prison where Nelson Mandela was held. And, as the Tavianis have proved, all prisons are Rome.
But it wasn’t just Cape Town. Schoolman worked with inmates in Alberta’s Drumheller Pentientiary and Cardiff too. In that sense, it’s a more ambitious project than Caesar Must Die. And yet they remain curious parallels of each other: one shows us the rehearsals for a production; the other presents the finished play. One, the old Caesar; the other, the young. But the two movies seem destined to diverge, despite their intertwined themes.
StringCaesar premiered in London earlier this month at the Raindance Film Festival. Speaking to LWLies after the premiere, Schoolman explained that production began over twenty years ago, at England’s Dartmoor Prison in 1984.
"I wrote to the Home Office and told them I had this idea. Six months later and they said, 'We think you should go to Dartmoor.' I was shitting myself! But I went there – and I did shit myself – and it was terrifying. It grew from there."
Not that it was easy. "We got banned at one point by the Home Secretary, and we couldn’t raise a penny in England," Schoolman says. "I just couldn’t do it myself. We were talking about crews of 20 or 30 people going into a prison. But then someone in Cape Town said: 'Why don’t you come over here?' because they knew me and my work. Luckily, the technology was evolving at the same time."
That's when the production got a big helping hand from Derek Jacobi, who came on board 10 years ago. Jacobi met Schoolman’s wife, Alice Krige (a South African actress most recognisable as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact), on a film called Molokai in 1999. He’s been attached to StringCaesar – and helping to raise awareness and funds – ever since.
"I’ve spent the first half of my career being very careful, classically," Schoolman recalls Jacobi saying. "Now I can do what I want to do and take some chances!"
That support made the project possible. But with Jacobi came strings. "They offered money to make it, but gave us rules," the director reveals. "Sir Derek couldn’t be within 10 feet of a prisoner. And that’s nothing like we’ve got on the screen."
In the film, Jacobi sits on top of inmates' shoulders, shouting, cackling and ordering them to slaughter each other. In a world of backstabbing violence, he fits right in. "By the time we were in Pollsmoor Prison, we had no money for laundry or anything," continues Schoolman. "At the end of the week, Derek came to me and said: 'My shirt is dirty, is there any way we can clean it?' It was the most humble thing I’ve ever seen in my life."
Of course, it’s easy to forget that Italy’s Caesar Must Die was conceived in a world where drama in prisons is moderately commonplace. Back when Schoolman started out, no one was doing drama workshops at all, let alone making films about them. Through almost 30 years of work, StringCaesar has helped to change that. Not that Schoolman would accept any credit.
The inmates themselves jumped at the chance – not realising at first what the project would bring. "When Paul asked me to get involved, I gave him a fortnight," one Dartmoor inmate, Tony, admitted. "Not because of him, but because I’d been in jail for six years. I thought it’d be a nice doss for a fortnight!"
But the power of drama (and cinema) soon came to light. "The beauty of jail is that there’s truth. Everyone knows exactly who you are," added Tony. "The other beauty is it allows you to look inside yourself to see where you need to change and, given opportunities like Caesar, you really can change yourself. That’s the only way it happens."
Another inmate, Sam, was equally rewarded by the scheme. "The Caesar project changed my life: I found a way to express myself. And I can only write phonetically."
That transformative power of art is evident in Caesar Must Die, too, winning it both fans and awards. "There’s a line that we weren’t able to put in the movie that one of them says towards the end," the Taviani brothers have revealed. "He rides to his wife and says, 'Soon, I’m going to act, please come and see my acting… because when I act I have the impression I can forgive myself.'"
Or as Tony puts it in StringCaesar: "When doing this, I have the power walk through walls."
What's next for both films? While Caesar Must Die is sure to receive further acclaim at the LFF, Schoolman saw his film get rejected from the Berlin Film Festival.
"We submitted to Berlin the year before [Caesar Must Die] and they turned us down. We hadn’t quite finished yet but the essence was there and I was quite insulted afterwards for some time. I wrote to them and said, 'I’m not being pretentious or rude but both actors Derek and John Kani have received large awards at Berlin in the past and you’ve turned us down.' They wrote back and said, 'Some people do waste years of their life doing stuff.'"
One year later and there are two jailed Caesars on the loose, proving the premise is anything but a waste of time. "It’s a story that needed telling. If it has any value, it will find who it needs to," Alice Krige has commented.
But what about the inmates themselves? How have they responded? "When our prisoners watched the movie they were very emotional and all dressed up very well," Paolo Tavianis has said. "Someone asked, 'Is that me? I don’t recognise myself!'"
For StringCaesar, though, many inmates are still waiting to see their work, as prison regulations and reforms continue to provide a major obstacle.
"We’ve never been able to get back into Pollsmoor," laments Schoolman. "After we’d finished, they shut us down. We’ve shown StringCaesar in other prisons – the inmates went hysterical. The governors there said if we wanted to do anything else there, we could do it."
Will they? Has his work started all those years ago actually helped to drive a new movement behind bars? "We may do something with them," Schoolman begins. Then, his phone rings. It's someone called Owen, director of a European institute for sex offenders. Paul passes the phone over.
Would they ever consider filmmaking in their establishment? "It would be difficult," Owen reasons over the phone, "but we would gladly welcome a workshop from Paul."
As for Schoolman himself, he’s counting up the pennies. "We have a charity set up, The Turning Point Foundation. One of the patrons is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, so we may be able to raise money, although it’s always difficult."
The aim of the foundation? To build a creative space "for the City of Cape Town’s marginalised, underprivileged and incarcerated to develop talent." The parallels return: the Taviani brothers were similarly inspired by their experiences to promote plays behind bars. "We made an agreement so that funds could go to help research and schemes inside the prison there," they have said.
Of course, both Caesars already have made a difference. Collecting the Golden Bear at Berlin, Paolo Taviani said, "We hope that when the film is released to the general public that cinemagoers will say to themselves or even those around them... that even a prisoner with a dreadful sentence, even a life sentence, is and remains a human being."
In another universe, StringCaesar might have said the exact same thing.