Escape from Pretoria tells story of Tim Jenkin and wooden keys
The story of anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin’s escape from Pretoria Central Prison, a plot involving self-made wooden keys, debuts at a time when there is global upheaval surrounding racial discrimination.
Escape from Pretoria is directed by British filmmaker Francis Annan and stars Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Jenkin, and Daniel Webber as Stephen Lee. Ian Hart also stars as struggle stalwart Denis Goldberg.
Along with co-conspirator Lee, Jenkin was sent to Pretoria Central Prison in 1978 after being convicted in Cape Town of producing and distributing pamphlets for banned organisations such as the ANC, the SACP and Umkhonto we Sizwe. Their arrest and conviction came as a result of extensive surveillance by security forces.
Shortly after their incarceration, Jenkin devised a plan to escape the prison using wooden keys he had fashioned in the prison workshop. Denis Goldberg was originally involved as intending to escape too, but later dropped out and remained on as adviser.
In December 1979, Jenkin, Lee, and fellow inmate Alex Moumbaris successfully escaped from the prison with Jenkin unlocking nine of its doors while Goldberg distracted the warden. Following the breakout, they escaped into Mozambique.
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Jenkin wrote about the ordeal in his 2003 book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison, on which the film is largely based. According to Jenkin himself, the film remains accurate to the narrative. “Of course, the individual scenes are fiction,” he said. “But Francis had a difficult job because it was an escape that took place over a year and a half, and he had to summarise a whole lot of different actions into one little scene. I think he captured that pretty well and while some of the scenes are not a hundred percent accurate, but in a film like this you need to keep tension and it’s true to the narrative.”
Jenkin was present for the production of the film and makes a cameo as a fellow prisoner. The experience brought up old memories for the activist. “I’ve never been allowed to forget the story, having rewritten the book three times and a documentary’s been shown of it and I’ve talked about it over and over,” he explained. “ I’ve even been to lockpickers conferences. I’ve never been allowed to forget it. The whole experience being there was quite amazing. It brought back memories. They even dressed me up in a prison uniform so that was very evocative.”
With the film debuting at time when there is global upheaval surrounding racial discrimination, Annan said the film not only contributes to the discussion, but also on Jenkin’s achievement. “These guys are very modest, but to convert a concept like the ending of apartheid into a calculable action is imminently commendable,” he said. “But it’s not about being commendable, it’s about bringing change. The consistency of attention is very striking and that’s something to cause a lot of debate around the world.”
Jenkin added: “I don’t know if the film comes across like this to some people, but the book certainly did where I wrote it as a metaphor, a story. We get trapped and imprisoned and you could see this in any prison. The society we live in now is a kind of prison. The whole world at the moment is in absolute chaos and no one has any solution. Let’s find a way out and plan it from the beginning, step by step and patience, and eventually you’ll get to the front door.”
Annan said the desire to tell Jenkin’s story originated from his interest in the uniqueness of the escape.
“I had never heard of anyone escaping from prison in this kind of way,” he said. “There wasn’t any digging or climbing out of windows, it was mental ingenuity to create a contraption to open a door. I thought that could be something really interesting to tell. But the main thing was that they weren’t just criminals, they weren’t just regular prisoners. They were virtuous and good-standing citizens who were fighting apartheid. I haven’t seen that many films about political prisoners escaping. You have two young, middle-class guys who chose to stand with the oppressed.”
The film was shot in Adelaide, South Australia in March 2019. The prison set in the film was previously used for another South African film, Breaker Morant, in 1980. Adelaide was also home to jacaranda trees, which factored into Annan’s decision to shoot the film there.
Having grown up in Ghana, West Africa, director Annan recalled stories told by family who had travelled to South Africa before and after the end of the apartheid era. This experience is what makes Escape from Pretoria relevant to contemporary discussions on race. “South Africa was one of the few places in the world where racism wasn’t just on an individual or cultural basis, it was baked into law,” Annan explained. “The country was ruled and governed by racial discrimination. You’ve got to factor that into South Africa when you think about it. Racism is a pernicious disease and it needs to be stamped out. Not only were these men South African but they were also white, choosing to cross that barrier and putting their money where their mouths are.”
Escape from Pretoria is available on DVD and Blu-ray and will now debut as a TNT Original Production on July 4 on DStv channel 137.@samuelspiller