Francis Annan and Tim Jenkin on ‘Escape from Pretoria’

South Africa is celebrating 30 years of democracy this week, commemorating the landmark first democratic election in 1994, which prompted Nelson Mandela to become president. While a proud moment for our rainbow nation, it’s worth remembering the many sacrifices taken by altruistic individuals in the hopes of transforming our nation.

One of those individuals is anti-apartheid activist, Tim Jenkin, who was incarcerated at Pretoria Central Prison… known as “white man’s Robben Island” at the time. He and Stephen Lee were working for the ANC distributing propaganda in a bid to topple the apartheid regime. After being arrested and imprisoned, Jenkin began work on a meticulous escape plan.

One of the greatest true jailbreak stories of all-time, it defies expectations with a story that could have inspired MacGyver and The A-Team, two popular TV series that followed only a few years later. His story has been adapted into the prison break thriller, Escape from Pretoria, starring Daniel Radcliffe. Spling had the pleasure of interviewing writer-director Francis Annan and the man who inspired it all – Tim Jenkin. Conducted and recorded via video conference, Spling got the nitty gritty details of what went into making the film and living the story.

Jenkin documented his amazing story in a gripping and equally meticulous autobiography ‘Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison’. This book formed the basis for a long-awaited adaptation that almost didn’t happen when the filmmakers were confronted with relocating the entire production to Australia or not doing it at all. At this point, writer-director Francis Annan had joined the project and was interested in translating what he believed to be a “visually dominant” story to screen.

While Escape from Pretoria has been criticised by South Africans for its iffy accents and international casting decisions, the film has received rave reviews around the globe. Topping the box office in Korea, it’s the powerful story, Jenkin’s genius and Radcliffe’s determination that underwrite a masterclass in suspense. Using a compelling soundtrack, crisp sound design and crafting some tense moments around the escape plan, Annan uses his feature film debut to showcase his ability. While it starts off with a few awkward moments, it quickly gets into gear as soon as the prison break thriller dynamic clicks into place like key in a lock.

From this point, you’re hooked and the superficial flaws cease to matter turning in an exhilarating and important story about a man committed to a much greater overarching cause. Putting the needs of others ahead of yourself is not natural and this heroic sense of altruism at the heart of Escape from Pretoria gives it a purity and raw power. The film premiered for the continent on TNT Africa and the book has been re-released by Jacana.