STACK chats with director Francis Annan about his real-life prison break thriller, Escape from Pretoria.
Director Francis Annan’s initial disappointment at the pandemic preventing his film, Escape from Pretoria, from being widely shown in cinemas was quickly replaced with an overwhelming sense of political relevancy.
A 1970s prison escape thriller set in apartheid South Africa, the film could easily have been perceived as a period piece but, following the murder of George Floyd and the global anti-racist movement, the film takes on renewed significance.
“I think it’s very timely, especially with all the protests going on around the world where such a vast mix of ethnicities are coming together to say ‘Enough’. There’s a big connection here in terms of people standing up against injustice,” says London-born Annan, who descends from a political family in Ghana, spending his early childhood in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Portugal and France before settling in Manchester.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe as Tim Jenkin and Australia’s Daniel Webber as Stephen Lee, Escape from Pretoria is the true story of two young white South Africans branded terrorists and imprisoned in 1978 for their underground work for Nelson Mandela’s banned ANC.
Within 18 months they escaped through 10 maximum-security doors, using wooden keys made in the prison’s own carpentry room.
“I think we all love the escape genre,” argues Annan. “It’s a vicarious thrill, sitting at home or in a cinema eating popcorn and knowing we’re safe. It’s also exciting to see their ingenuity and daring and how clever they were. And like The Shawshank Redemption or Colditz, it’s also about relationships.”
Together with fellow inmate Leonard Fontaine, the trio fled through Angola, Zambia, Tanzania and London, where Jenkin continued to fight against apartheid in exile, publishing a book about their daring escape, Inside Out, before their official pardon in 1991.
Re-published in 2003, the book would find its way to Annan in 2012, with Radcliffe onboard since 2016. “He read it within days and we met over a long lunch and a huge chat about geopolitical affairs and race and apartheid,” recalls Annan.
The film was almost scuppered through drought in Cape Town and finance problems, bringing the production Down Under to Adelaide.
“Adelaide was perfect – the streets and shop fronts on Pirie Street were very similar along with the jacaranda trees, red earth, post colonial architecture and even a sizeable South African population,” says the director who also filmed at the historic Redruth Gaol in Burra, SA – a location used for Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980).
Making the move from South Africa to Adelaide in a matter of months, it became clear that Annan would need to do significant casting in Australia. Looking to fill the lead role of Stephen Lee, he says, “I went online and trawled through strong Aussie actors in the right age bracket with the right look and, to be honest, Daniel Webber was the only one on my list. Of course it was just my [bad] luck that Daniel had already moved to LA by this point, so we had to check if he was prepared to return to Australia for the role. Fortunately he was.”
The two lead actors were greatly aided by Jenkin and Lee’s enthusiasm. “The actors were able to Skype with them both beforehand and ask any questions they wanted, which was invaluable,” he says.
“Tim lives in Cape Town and came to Adelaide for a few weeks and is in a few scenes as a prisoner. Sadly Stephen had surgery and wasn’t able to travel.”
On many levels, Annan feels he was born to direct this film; going back to childhood, hearing stories from his Ghanian grandfather after visiting South Africa.
“A lot of Africans looked at South Africa with voyeuristic intrigue and found a real absurdity in this situation, where their fellow Africans were subjugated by white men.”
Fascinated by Jenkin and Lee’s story, he adds, “Very few of us actually go beyond our verbal stances against injustice and physically do something to fight against it; especially something that comes at significant and life-changing cost.
“There’s something almost missionary-like about their dedication, which even prison is unable to numb.”
Escape from Pretoria is out on DVD & Blu-ray on July 15