The journey to bring to the big screen the personal narrative of one of the greatest humanitarians in history was a formidable 16 year-long odyssey for the producer Anant Singh. As a third generation of Indian descent born in South Africa, and classed as a ‘non-white’ citizen by the apartheid government, Anant was part of the liberation struggle. “Madiba was that icon for everyone in that struggle and when I started making movies I believed that the story of this liberation was so profound, it had to be told.” Singh, who started his career in film production during the height of apartheid, brought the country’s first anti-apartheid films to world screens. Ironically he was prohibited from watching them in South Africa’s segregated cinemas together with any white director.
It was through his close relationship with the prominent anti-apartheid activist, Fatima Meer (who wrote the Mandela biography, Higher than Hope, which was approved by Mandela while he was still in prison), that Singh was introduced to Mandela. Six weeks after Mandela’s triumphant release from prison Singh had the most significant meeting of his life. “Fatima invited me to her home and there sat Madiba! I had no idea he would be there.” recalls Singh who spent an hour with Mandela at the very start of his freedom.
“What struck me was his humility, his knowledge of everything, and most notably his desire to know my point of view. He made everything so easy. Here you are with a person who you’ve been in awe of all your life, but you feel like you’re talking to a friend. That was the day that my relationship with him began.”
Before Long Walk to Freedom was published in 1995, Mandela invited Singh to look at the manuscript. “It took me the weekend to read and I immediately said to him: ‘There is a significant movie here, I have to make it!’ When the book hit international agencies two months later, the offers came in from Hollywood and a bidding contest began. Singh recollects that Madiba said: ‘This is a South African story, and I want you to tell it.’
The great leader personally awarded Singh the coveted rights to adapt his personal memoirs to the motion picture medium. “All I could promise Madiba was my commitment and that I would do the very best I could to make a movie that I hoped he would be proud of.” While Singh acknowledged the very real honour bestowed upon him, he now faced a daunting challenge to get the movie made.
The film marks a reunion of sorts for Singh, Screenwriter William Nicholson, Justin Chadwick, and producer David Thompson - with whom Singh produced Sarafina!, Red Dust, and Bravo Two Zero. William Nicholson penned the Sarafina! screenplay, and both Thompson and Singh were producers of Chadwick’s multiple award-winning The First Grader, shot in Kenya.
Cameron McCracken, now Managing Director of Pathe in the UK, was working for British Screen (predecessor to the British Film Institute), when he first met Singh who was at the start of the development process. Sixteen years later, Pathe was the first distributor to board the project, acquiring the UK and French rights and the international sales mandate. “Anant has carried this project for 16 years - his passion for it has never dimmed because he lived this history.” avers McCracken, who believes that Singh’s film will be a departure from previous movies about Mandela. “One of the biggest differences is the sheer cinematic scale. If you are going to tell the story of one of the most iconic individuals on the planet - you have to mount the biggest African production ever, because it demands a big canvas.”