Michka Saäl

Prisoners of Beckett

2005, documentary, 85 minutes, English with subtitles for Swedish and Russian

Nominated for two Gemina awards, including Best Writing in a Documentary

Credits        Reviews        Screenings Backstory



Both tragic and comic, Prisoners of Beckett asks what it means to be incarcerated, and weaves an existential dream of freedom through the language of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Against a background of songs by Bob Dylan, the film takes us into the world of men waiting and searching for their identity.




Researched, written and directed by Michka Saäl


Image: Sylvestre Guidi

Sound: Didier Pecheur

Editor: Nadia Ben Rachid

Music: Bob Dylan


Production: ARTE France, ADR Productions, Qu4tre par Quatre Films, National Film Board of Canada


With Jan Jonson

michka with jan.jpg



Deliberately Beckettian

“An abstruse puzzle, Michka Saäl’s film is deliberately Beckettian. Fluctuating between fiction and reality, the documentary takes shape piece by piece, building on archival images filmed in the 1980s, recent interviews with fugitives, and extracts of a monologue by the charismatic Jan Jonson. All this with the music of Bob Dylan. You must let yourself be seduced by the story to appreciate it fully, abandon any illusions of objectivity to savour its profundity. In three words: you must wait.”

Nicolas Delesalle, Télérama, February 22, 2006


Magnificent… cathartic… mysterious

“Magnificent. A blow to the stomach. For those who hate actors who overplay in a false reverie of affected emotions, these five young jailbirds will conjure up an emotion that is archaic, cathartic, mysterious. With life that turns into fiction and pulverizes concrete. With the words of Beckett that seep into the bones and well up like tears.

Marie Muller, TéléObs, February 27, 2006


“This is not your garden-variety documentary, and that’s a good thing… an ambitious feature-length film on the absurdities of prison life starting from a story ripped from the headlines that has the allure of a crime novel.”

Charles-Stéphane Roy, Ici, November 10-16, 2005 

Passionate and unforgettable

"With a good story that transcends anecdote to reflect on the role of art, freedom, redemption and destiny, Michka Saäl delivers a passionate and unforgettable film."

Odile Tremblay, Le Devoir, November 13, 2005


Complex, but fluid

“The construction of Michka Saäl’s film is complex, but always fluid, thanks in large part to editing that manages both to translate the poetic force of the words and create suspense. Like a puzzle, as Saäl says, the film develops with help from small details that slowly build to create a whole.”

Carlo Mandolini, Voir, July 10-16, 2005


Incomprehensible (!)

“Although it has magnetism, this documentary remains a bit of a dog’s breakfast, mixing up eras, and what’s true and false… In short, the film is incomprehensible.”

Vincent Ostria, Les Inrockuptibles, February 27, 2006                   




DOC Cévennes, Lasalle, France


Cinématèque Québécoise, Montreal


Festival de Cannes – Sélection ACID

Sélectionné pour le Prix Europa, Berlin

Centre Beaubourg, Paris 


FID Marseille, France

Lisbon International Film Festival

Tübingen - Stuttgart International French-language Film Festival, Germany

Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montreal

Montreal International Documentary Festival

Créteil International Women’s Film Festival , France

Cinéma du Réel, France 

Theatres: Ex-Centris, Montréal

Television: Télé Québec and ARTE/France



Inmates at Kumla Prison in Sweden hit the road with Jan Jonson to perform Beckett”s  Waiting for Godot  outside the prison.

Inmates at Kumla Prison in Sweden hit the road with Jan Jonson to perform Beckett”s Waiting for Godot outside the prison.


“The director was summoned by her producer to talk about a documentary on jazz. Michka Saäl left Stockholm, her heart beating. ‘Sorry, but jazz is a non-starter,’ the producer said. With this cold water splashed in her face, the director asked, if that was the case, why had they asked to see her. ‘To get to know you. What were you doing in Stockholm?’ Michka Saäl improvises on the spot. She is working. A project. About five prisoners who play Beckett and then escape. ‘Where do I sign?’ the producer says.

Interview with Nicolas Delesalle, Télérama, February 22, 2006


A game you play

“A Beckettian film, thus bizarre, without a voiceover, built like a puzzle that does not yield its secrets easily, its true shape. And holding the escape until the last minute. ‘It wasn’t my interest,’ explains Michka Saäl. ‘I wanted nothing anecdotal, nothing sensational. It’s not without pleasure. It’s like a game you play, a little at a time.’”

Interview with Nicolas Delesalle, Télérama, February 22, 2006

beckett jan and michka serious.png

Fail again, fail better

“Sometimes in the middle of a shoot, Jan would stop cold, in a panic, and say, ‘Michka this is awful. I can’t remember if what I just acted really happened in this or that prison with this or that inmate, or in another with someone else.’ My answer was always the same, ‘No big deal. Everything is true because you lived it, and you’re on stage, recreating your truth. The truth is what you play and what you feel as you play it!’”

Interview with Olivier Pierre in Paris, June 23, 2005 for FID Marseille

Jan Jonson and Samuel Beckett. Photo: Beppe Arvidsson

Jan Jonson and Samuel Beckett. Photo: Beppe Arvidsson

“It gives me pleasure to push the limits. In Prisoners of Beckett, some people watching the film don’t know what’s real and what’s not because there is theatre in the film. All to tell a story that takes place outside the prison. I interviewed real people 18 years after the events. Some had hardly aged so it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s staged. That’s one thing that interests me, the other is to mix up the arts. To put theatre in documentary and to mix in dance and poetry as well.”

Master Class, University of Montreal, Observatoire de cinema au Québec (Mardis OCQ), 2014


How Michka convinced Jan Jonson to do the film

“I had to convince (Jan Jonson) that I loved Beckett, and that I knew his work very well. Still, that wasn’t enough. He kept asking, ‘Why, but why?’ Then one day, I said, ‘It’s because of you. Because great stories come to those who know how to tell them.’ So then he said, ‘Oh yes, okay, let’s go baby!’”

Interview with Carlo Mandolini, Voir, April 10-16, 2005

Prisoners of Philistines

I worked on the 52-minute version of the film for television, the “philistine” version as Michka called it, which she had no heart to do. Yet, strangely enough, we made a short film that still had the Beckettian energy of the original because we rearranged the pieces in a “cut-up”. Without taking anything away from the full-length version, which I consider a masterpiece, this thing born of our philistine dilemma truly surprised and delighted us.

Michel Giroux, Editor

A tremendous gift from Michka

My second feature with Michka. What an adventure. For the shoot, Michka had asked me to take care of Jan Jonson, a great Swedish actor and the main character of the film. This meant staying with him until the early hours of morning to listen to his stories, each one more incredible than the last. He spoke about Beckett and the theatre. Of Bergman, who was his teacher. Of his audition for Tarkovski at the age of 18. And of course of his work as a theatre director in prisons around the world. Later I realized this was a tremendous gift from Michka. And not the last one.

Sylvestre Guidi, Director of photography