Creative choices in dark days: Anant Singh8 min read

Anant Singh at TEDx London Business School

Full text of South Africa’s pre-eminent film producer Anant Singh’s talk: Creative choices in dark days at TEDx London Business School conference. Anant Singh talks about his journey: creating films that speak out about difficult issues in South Africa and abroad to create social awareness.

Notable Quote from this talk:

“I think you just have to follow your dreams, follow your heart. And maybe lady luck will smile on you.”

Listen to MP3 Audio:


Anant Singh – South Africa’s pre-eminent film producer

The Kaleidoscope is the first invention that showed multi-dimensional images and the change of these visuals that people were captivated by. So it’s a great theme to have as a filmmaker. And I’m going to give you a sort of kaleidoscopic view of how these films that I made, came into being.

Let me take you back to the sixties. Just five decades ago. It was five years before the Beatles started. And in 1964 Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were sent to prison for life. And what they were trying to do was to get freedom for us, the people of the black people of South Africa and a lot of that story.

Life in South Africa during those days where it was very bleak for people of color. It was a totally segregated society and it was all totally legal. 

There was no television. Racism operated on every level: on the beaches, restaurants, cinemas, where you lived. As I was growing up as an eight-year-old, you go to a park and those were segregated. The benches were segregated and you kind of think, ‘well, what is this all about?’ And you start being curious and asking questions.

Not only was this racism and trenched in our country, the government went further. They segregated amongst those race groups. So colored Indian and African all had different rules, different beaches, different schools.

So it was quite a shock as I grew up to get to know that nobody in the world was doing anything about it.  It was normal. The government had rules and enforcement and very very vicious enforcement. And some of the films that I’ve made later in the years dealt with some of that.

I grew up in a very modest home in an extended family, all living together. It was a very basic house and it had outdoor ablution facilities. So it gives you an example of those days.

And through those days, all the way through 1976, South Africa had no television. The apartheid government at the time felt that television will enlighten the black community and that they would learn ideas that they shouldn’t.

So the only home entertainment at the time was watching eight millimeter silent movies on a wall. And those were the first images that I came across and captivated me- Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. And it was the magic of cinema in a truly transforming experience. 

So as I went to high school and became more politically active, I started asking more questions. I worked weekends and holidays and in a film stores to rewind movies, never got paid, but it was to be able to experience all these films and enjoying them and being close to them.

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In high school, I got involved in the programming society for films. And again, racism in South Africa, censorship, they were films that would only be able to be seen by white people. And this is the mid-seventies now. So of course I would choose one of these more provocative, interesting films, screened it for the school, got into trouble. And later on, I got arrested for showing movies to people of color. And this was all a criminal process. I went to court and that’s how the rules of the day worked. 

So you’re probably thinking- Why am I telling you all of this?

What was fascinating and I only got to know this in retrospect, was that those early days as an eight-year-old watching those images, was what captivated me and what I was passionate about. So it was that choice that as I got to learn more, I wanted to be more involved in film.

So at the age of 13, my dad suddenly passed away. And with that came huge responsibility. So my aspirations of wanting to come to London Film School were shot down. The only film school in South Africa at the time was in Pretoria. It was for white people only. So that was gone. Being forced to go to university, I studied engineering which was of no help to me in rest of my life.

Anyway, in the mid-seventies, as a high school student, we, and the whole country; all the black people in South Africa began to rebel against the government. I think one of the biggest transformations that occurred in South Africa was when the young people took on the apartheid struggle.

And in 1976, over 170 young people. Most under the age of 18 were killed and shot, mostly in the back in Soweto. We were heading into anarchy and Nelson Mandela and the ANC, they were all in exile and in prison and they made a call “do whatever you can to speak out against apartheid.”

So I decided, well, what can I do?

Well, maybe I should make a film. I didn’t know too much about making films, but I did know how to watch them. I knew how to conceptualize and do all of that. So I put a little team together. We made the first anti-apartheid film ever to be shot in our country. We did it on the run from the security authorities and it was called A Place of Weeping

We literally shot the movie. I put the negative in my luggage, brought it to London and finished the film a few miles from here at Technicolor. But what was interesting is that we did it for a few thousand pounds and it had a lot of heart. It got creative and award accolades around the world.

And here’s this little film, which little did we imagine. It was quite controversial in South Africa. And it was very much the kind of story that no matter what part of life you were, if you a right wing, left wing, black, white, you had a role in this film. And it was quite impressive in the fact that this little film found hearts and minds of people all over the world. 

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Again, why am I telling you this? It’s the impact. That little things have that you try to do the best you can and somehow things just work out. It’s passion; it’s love that you put into it. And the whole team, everybody came together to do that.

So I decided to make and produce more films, many of which were socially relevant subjects speaking about speaking against the apartheid system. The next film was called ‘The stick’. It was banned in South Africa.

Thereafter, I did a little film called Sarafina! which was the story of the night in 1976- kids that were killed in Soweto. I managed to get Whoopi Goldberg to participate in the film. She was a very outspoken critic of apartheid. And the film actually did quite well. It premiered at the Cannes film festival and what was very very helpful and supportive. 

Getting movies made is quite a complicated and complex business. You find that in many instances, your investors, your business affairs people, they’ll all look at the subjects and say, “Oh no, that’s a movie about politics or it’s this, or it’s that nobody’s going to go to see it.”

And you’ve heard earlier people talking about choices and how the obvious choices sometimes are not necessarily the right choices. So I continued and persevered, and I did the film version ofCry, the Beloved Country’, based on Alan Peyton’s bestselling novel.

I did a film called ‘Red Dust’ with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hilary Swank, which was based on a story from the truth and reconciliation commission, a true story. And several other films or dealing with social issues and not only in South Africa, but other places.

And then in the 80s, AIDS was a big problem in our continent and especially South Africa. So I decided, let me come up with a story. And we did a little film called ‘Yesterday’. It was the first film to speak out against the disease; to deal with the stigma, deal with all the related issues. And it was the first film to be made in one of our indigenous languages isiZulu.

And what’s interesting is that again, the skeptics would say, well, it’s in an indigenous language. It’s about AIDS. And I just persevered because, you know, you have to believe in what you want to be doing.

And we made the film. And it was quite fascinating because it went on to become South Africa’s first film to be a nominated for an Oscar. It then went on to win many accolades. With Nelson Mandela and the foundation were the supporters of the film and we screened it across the country.

Now I’d like to pause and give you a preview of my most recent creative choice, which is Mandela long walk to freedom. The journey began 25 years ago and it was perseverance and through his words that ‘Nothing is impossible until it is done.’ That I got it made.

So that movie, as, as I mentioned, it was a 25 year journey and it started by me writing to Mr. Mandela while he was still in prison. When he came out of prison, I was very fortunate to be granted the rights to his autobiography by him and with it came a huge challenge but huge pride.

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I had to do a movie that could do justice to his amazing life. And what was amazing was that he said to me, show me for my strengths and my weaknesses. And I think that was one of the best things as a filmmaker that you want to hear.

But the reason it took so long was that I could have made a 10 hour mini-series about him, but I wanted to do it in epic two-hour on screen film. And as a South African, I wanted to do it as a South African film, not have the Hollywood studio interventions and all of that. 

And I’m very proud that we were able to screen the film for Mr. Mandela before he passed on. I took footage to him and he gave it his support. So that was very satisfying. And the premiere of the film took place at the Odeon Leicester square. It was the Royal premier, and it was a joyous evening when we started, it was with his daughters: Zindziswa and Zenani Mandela.

And by the end of the film or during the film he had passed on. So I had the difficult task and one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do- to go on stage to tell that audience of 1600 people, including, William and Kate, that this had happened. So it was such a surreal evening, but I’m very delighted that I made the film to be able to celebrate life. 

So on reflection, I think the thing that I’ve come out of all of this with is the pride and passion has prompted me to make choices, work harder and to succeed in an industry that was reserved for whites at the time.

I had to break new ground and try to be better. I think no matter where in the world you are the choices you make, and you’ve heard from some of the speakers earlier, that differences can be made by just following what you believe in and location is irrelevant, and more so today.

I think that from a film standpoint, you look at a film last year that competed in the Cannes film festival called Timbuktu, tiny film, but it’s so powerful. I think it’s playing in the UK right now.

But I think with technology being what it is, and you’ve seen some demos of that earlier, that the potential is so amazing that you can make any one of you or anyone, anywhere in the world can make a film on their cell phone and you can edit it on your computer. These were things that were not available 30 years ago.

So I feel that the potential and the belief and the ability to do all these things that you can, actually opens other doors too. You don’t realize all of this as you’re going through the journey, but that’s what the commitment generated for me.

It’s Einstein who said “The harder I work, the luckier I get”.

I think you just have to follow your dreams, follow your heart. And maybe lady luck will smile on you.

Thank you.

– Anant Singh