They first rose to fame on YouTube, dancing in their orange jail uniforms to Michael Jackson’s songs where their videos earned some 40 million hits.
Now some of the prisoners at the Cebu Detention and Rehabiliation Center in the Philippines will make their big screen debut in Dance of the Steel Bars.
The film is based on real-life reforms at the Cebu jail where a security advisor taught dance to around 1,000 inmates, not only as exercise but as a way to instill discipline and camaraderie.
Filipino prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with gang warfare, drugs and gambling.
Co-director Marnie Manicad said they wanted to show the changes at the jail: “It was very emotional for all of us, because we saw how they were rehabilitated through dance, and I think the film will show this.”
Aiming for authenticity, the directors shot inside the Cebu detention centre for seven days, with a cast of professional actors and about 750 inmates.
Actor Joey Paras, who plays a transsexual whose idea it was to teach dance routines to fellow jailbirds, was initially worried about shooting inside the prison.
“If you’re part of the audience and you see them, your hair will stand on end as they’re so impressive. And all the more if you stand beside them, and you can smell them, and you can feel their energy, your sweat is the same as their sweat, you’re immersed in their group. The feeling is truly unique,” he said.
Co-director Cesar Apolinario added: “I did not only see them as brilliant dancers, but they are actually brilliant actors. We didn’t have problems in terms of telling them how to act, because it’s really natural. When I say, ‘You have to look sad here,’ they show it.”
Dance of the Steel Bars is now playing in the Philippines and will also be released in Asia, the Middle East and the United States.