Movie comes at the right time Free at last: Anant Singh waited for the end of apartheid to make 'Cry, the Beloved Country.'

January 17, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The film version of Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" is more than just another movie to producer Anant Singh.

As the first film to come out of democratic South Africa -- a country where apartheid prevented blacks from even seeing films such as this, much less making them -- it's a victory over repression.

As the ennobling tale of two men able to see past their cultures and recognize their shared humanity, it's a celebration of the human spirit.

And as a reminder of the reality that was apartheid, of what one people's hate for another can do if unchecked, it is, perhaps most importantly, a cautionary tale.

"It promotes, in one sense, the spirit of reconciliation," Mr. Singh says in a Washington hotel room during a whirlwind promotional tour for the film, "but on the other, [it is a reminder that] there was a time we passed that we should never, ever go back to."

The South African native first read Paton's anti-apartheid classic 25 years ago. Although it didn't make much of an impression then, he enjoyed it enough to pick it up again later. This time, the book stuck.

"When I read it eight years ago, that's when it really moved me," says Mr. Singh, who acquired the film rights three years later. "By that time, I had been involved in the liberation movement, making anti-apartheid movies and stuff like that. That was the time that I decided, 'This is such a powerful book, and I will make it into a film.' "

But, he says, the time wasn't right; "Cry, the Beloved Country" should not come out of a nation still practicing legalized racism.

"I believed it would have so much more meaning once we accomplished our freedom," he says, "because Alan Paton wrote about the experience of the two fathers coming together . . . about reconciliation and introspection, realizing what's important in life, and things like that."

Such traits, he says, are "reflective of the spirit that we as a country need to have to come together."

It's a spirit the country is showing, a spirit Mr. Singh says is embodied in South African President Nelson Mandela. People looking for incentive to avoid being bitter and live side-by-side with their former tormentors need look no further than Mr. Mandela -- a man who spent nearly 10,000 days as a political prisoner, yet is successfully leading people of both races into a new era.

"With a leader like Mandela," Mr. Singh says, "we can't do better. He is one of the most impressive men that I've ever had the good fortune to know."

As South Africa's first nonwhite movie producer, Mr. Singh has been in the forefront of black South Africa's cultural fight. His first film, the anti-apartheid "A Place of Weeping," was released in 1984, when he was only 28. It was the first of four collaborations between him and director Darrell James Roodt, including "The Stick," "Sarafina!" and now "Cry."

Making films in South Africa has never been easy. Despite the critical plaudits he received abroad, Mr. Singh's films were censored or banned in his country. Yet his dedication to the craft of filmmaking never wavered -- perhaps because he saw a higher calling than simply entertaining an audience.

"I've been thrown into jail. Yeah, absolutely," he says matter-of-factly. "You had to deal with that. I was a person growing up in an industry reserved for whites, I was speaking out against apartheid using my films. That was part of day-to-day life -- your occupational hazard, I guess.

"The point was, this industry was designed to promote Afrikaner films. I certainly had no interest in doing anything close to that. We made the first anti-apartheid film in South Africa on the run from the police."

Mr. Singh avoids predicting how well "Cry, the Beloved Country" will do with American audiences. He allows, however, that it didn't prove an easy sell to American distributors.

"The studios in Hollywood said I shouldn't make these films because there's no audience for them. But at the same time, I guess they did the same thing on 'Forrest Gump.' "

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