In 2013, over fifteen years after the film rights had been acquired, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was released in theatres. On December 5, the royal premiere was held in London. Everyone from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Nelson Mandela’s daughters Zindzi and Zenani were in attendance. The film finished to thunderous applause. Producer Anant Singh took to the stage. Rather than a self-congratulatory speech, he was there to make a sombre announcement: Madiba had died.
The making of Long Walk to Freedom was a long process – one that had taken more than a decade to come to fruition. Singh and Mandela developed a close friendship in that time. “He said to me, ‘Don’t bother me, I trust you’ – so that pressure made it even more difficult.” The film was released to positive acclaim and multiple award nominations. For Singh, it was a labour of love. Mandela’s death was a painful end to that journey, but the film stands as one more piece of his legacy.
Singh is responsible for some of the most important anti-apartheid films to come out of South Africa, including Sarafina!, Cry, the Beloved Country, and Red Dust. “It’s great being a producer,” he says. “But it can be very frustrating. Everybody sees the red carpets and the accolades, the reviews and the box office, and they think, ‘Hey, that’s a cool business!’ But it’s a lot of hard work.”
The hard work didn’t turn him away. It was magnetic. A model professional, Singh is poised and solemn, but sincere. Mandela called him “a producer I respect very much and a man of tremendous ability.” Singh earned the compliment.
His passion was ignited early. Growing up in the sixties, television had yet to arrive in the country. Silent movies featuring Charlie Chaplin and the antics of Laurel and Hardy captured the imagination of young moviegoers. Singh spent his early years mesmerised by the magic of film, never imagining making movies was what he would do. “It didn’t dawn on me when I first saw the images that I wanted to be making movies. I just wanted to be with film.” His enthusiasm for the medium led to a holiday job rewinding movies at a film rental store for one Rand a day.
During the apartheid era, following a passion was not a priority in oppressed communities; resistance and survival were. Freedom was the dream. Singh supressed his aspirations, and, after high school, pursued a degree in engineering. “The only film school was in Pretoria and it was for white people,” he says.
At 18, he abandoned his university studies to purchase the 16mm movie rental store he had spent his teens working in. “It was a process,” he says of becoming a producer. “It’s been a very circuitous route to film.” His acquisition of the store was the first step in his professional evolution.
Navigating the eighties in South Africa wasn’t easy. A state of emergency was declared in 1986 and imposed across the nation. The noise of rioting and protests was deafening. An increasing number of international countries had implemented trade sanctions on the country. The government was under intense worldwide pressure to end apartheid.
South Africans became bolder with the international support, and a call from the ANC encouraged supporters to speak out against the state in whatever way they could. “I decided I should make a film,” Singh says. His debut as a producer came in 1987, with the anti-apartheid feature film A Place of Weeping. The film marked the first in a line of movies that demonstrated resistance against the system.
The hostile South African government tainted what was one of the most remarkable milestones in his career. Theatres across the nation were segregated. Singh and director Darrel Roodt couldn’t watch the movie they had made together. “He went to the white cinema, I went to the cinema in Soweto,” Singh says. Undeterred, the irrepressible producer forged ahead.
In 1992 one of the most notable films of his career was released to massive critical and financial success: Sarafina!. A global phenomenon, the musical starred Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba and Leleti Khumalo. Based on the Soweto uprising of 1976, the film was screened out of competition at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. It grossed over seven million dollars worldwide.
“Sarafina was one of the big event films that we did just after Madiba was released,” he says. “It celebrated that journey of his in a very different way.” Singh and Roodt would continue this celebration with their post-apartheid adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. In 2013, Singh continued the tradition on his own with the release of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
More than fifteen years prior to the release of the film, Singh had secured the rights to Mandela’s autobiography. “While he was in prison, I was writing to him about making a movie about his life,” he says. “By the time the book came out he had seen Sarafina!, he had come to the premiere of Cry, the Beloved Country, and he then said to me, ‘Look, you are the person I want to make this movie.’”
Of the night the world learned of Madiba’s death Singh says, “Credits were rolling, I went on stage and everyone’s applauding, thinking ‘These guys are here for accolades’. I had to quieten them down and say, ‘I have a sad announcement to make’. It was the most challenging task of my life, definitely the most difficult thing I have had to do. But I felt that I had to do it because I was the connection, so to speak.”
Producing the film was a daunting undertaking. There was responsibility to make a film that would satisfy South African audiences, who have always felt a degree of proprietorship over the life of Madiba. “Part of the reason it’s taken the amount of time it has is that we had to take this amazing story and make a two-hour film about it,” he says. “I could have easily made a ten-hour miniseries.”
Singh’s films have been nominated for Emmys and Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes – but the bright lights of Hollywood can’t tear him away from the place he loves. “I love everything about South Africa,” he says. “This is the best place on earth. There is nowhere else I would rather be. It’s a place where you can succeed, where you can make your own destiny. There’s nowhere else in the world that you could do it better.”
An in-demand film producer in Hollywood today, Anant Singh’s passion for film has seen him triumphantly emerge from the suffocating oppression of apartheid. In a time when denying the realities of living in a repressive society was near impossible, his faith in South Africa kept him working to unearth these tales, and bring them to the masses.
“It takes a lot of patience,” he says. “But I want to be involved in that whole process. It can take years to go from idea to fruition – and that’s okay. It’s frustrating at times but, ultimately, like Madiba says, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’”