Escape From Pretoria director cried when cinemas closed doors

Escape From Pretoria stars Daniel Webber (far left) and Daniel Radcliffe.
Escape From Pretoria stars Daniel Webber (left) and Daniel Radcliffe.PHOTO: SHAW

Biographical drama Escape From Pretoria was to be released worldwide in March and April this year. But those were the months that cinemas in several countries closed their doors to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

"I cried, a little bit," says director Francis Annan, 35, in a Zoom call from his home in London.

The prison-break story, now in cinemas here, was released on streaming platforms in some countries. In others, it was poised to be among the handful of new Western movies to be screened when cinemas reopened.

'Whenever I hear that the film's in theatres, I'm really happy... On the flip side, the closures might be a blessing," he says, letting out a small whoop of celebration.

Besides playing on a schedule that is less crowded, it has done well in cinemas in South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, because it is a thriller meant to be seen on a large screen, he adds.

The film, based on a book by Tim Jenkin, is set in the 1970s and tells the story of South African anti-apartheid activists, Jenkin (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber). Held in Pretoria Central Prison, they plot an escape with the help of other political prisoners, some of whom have been there far longer than them.

The prison-break movie is a well-trodden path for film-makers. Annan needed fresh ideas and turned to world cinema from various eras. "I watched 47 films, from Spain, Thailand and other countries," he recalls.

Because his film, which he had been trying to get made since 2012, is based on a true story, he had to tread lightly when it came to embellishing, such as by adding attention-grabbing action sequences.

European films from the 1960s inspired him to look to details.

"Those films were all about meticulousness, but they were also really gripping," he says.

Radcliffe's Jenkin and Webber's Lee are shown crafting escape tools from everyday materials like wood, then hiding them in plain sight during cell inspections. These displays of ingenuity and effort can be just as tension-building as action, Annan notes.

With two white leading characters paying the price for acting against racist policy, comparisons have been drawn between the current Black Lives Matter protests and the story depicted in the film.

"Jenkin and Lee were two young, white, university-educated men who were ahead of the curve in their anti-apartheid, anti-racism activity," Annan says.

"In 1970s South Africa, there was a prison wing for people like them, the white prisoners. It's an early version of what is happening now when people of all races are united against racism."

• Escape From Pretoria is now showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2020, with the headline 'Escape From Pretoria director cried when cinemas closed doors'. Print Edition | Subscribe