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Escape from Pretoria film is a powerful thriller about the ingenuity of resistance

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Escape from Pretoria is the extraordinary and thrilling true story of two anti-apartheid activists. Moyra Samuels reviews the film—and speaks to two of those depicted.
Issue 2694
Daniel Radcliffe stars in escape from pretoria
Daniel Webber and Daniel Radcliffe star in Escape from Pretoria

Escape from Pretoria is based on the true story of a daring prison breakout.

Tim Jenkins (Daniel Radcliffe), Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber) are two young white activists from the African National Congress (ANC)—which fought apartheid—locked up in Pretoria Central prison.

Pretoria Central was not just the first place that political prisoners were brought to, but often the last as well. During the apartheid period an astounding 135 political prisoners were hung there for alleged crimes.

The film begins with the arrest and trial of Jenkins and Lee for distributing leaflets that called on black people to rise up against apartheid.

Their decision to escape along with one other prisoner from the high security prison makes for a tense, edge of seat thriller. It reflects the courage and determination of ANC activists to smash apartheid.

But it also shows the ingenuity of human beings to find creative and simple ways to break from the chains of their oppression.

I asked Jenkins and Lee about their experience of growing up in South Africa and what drew them into the anti-apartheid struggle.

Jenkins was aroused to the true horror of apartheid during a visit to London where he watched documentaries on South Africa.

As a teenager Lee was deeply influenced by Albert Luthuli’s book Let My People Go—and a warm relationship with the black domestics who cared for him as a child. The pair met at university and through the Christian movement connected with black freedom activist Steve Biko. Lee says their later recruitment into ANC meant “we all identified as Marxists”.

Both used their engineering ­backgrounds to devise an audacious escape plan. It involved unlocking the 11 gates to the outside using wooden replicas of keys.

Directed by Francis Annan in his first feature length film, Escape from Pretoria uses music and camerawork that powerfully pull the viewer into the suspense of putting their plan into action.

The film includes a depiction of Denis Goldberg, a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle who was imprisoned for 22 years and a key member of Umkhonto we Sizwe—the armed wing of the ANC.

Goldberg plays a key role in their escape. But it would have given the film more political depth if the audience had a greater insight into the role of armed resistance to the brutality of the state.

Using Australia as the filming location is also distracting as both the accents and some settings lack authenticity.

The personal sacrifices that activists made is demonstrated movingly in the film. All political prisoners yearn to see their children.

Stephen Lee recognises that they were lucky to escape with their lives—and that the untold stories of so many of their black comrades who lost their lives, remain untold.

Speaking to Jenkins, he concludes that, “The prison is a metaphor of our condition. The doors represent the impediments to our goals and freedoms.

“Wooden keys, which are low tech, show that these are not impossible barriers”.

In cinemas from Friday 6 March


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