Anant Singh 1998


Often given credit for single-handedly keeping film­making alive in South Africa, Anant Singh has brought some of the most powerful anti-apartheid movies to international screens. His impressive list of credits includes Place of Weeping, Sarafina! and Cry, the Beloved Country.

Born and raised in Durban, Singh' s association with film -and with entrepreneurship -began at an early age. One of his first "business ventures" was a cinema in his parents' lounge where he showed 8mm and 16mm movies for the neighbourhood children. As a teenager in the days before video, he worked part-time in a movie rental store re-winding the 16mm films. He followed this by purchasing his own movie rental store at the age of eighteen, having given up his engineering studies at the University of Durban-Westville.

From there, he moved into video distribution and then, in 1984, expanded into film production. His company, Videovision Enterprises, is today one of the largest independent distributors of motion pictures in South Africa.

Singh started "thinking global" long before globali­sation became today's corporate buzzword. In 14 years, his consistent quality of production has led to the international distribution of more than 40 feature films. His once-modest distribution, business has grown into a serious global contender through colla­borative ventures with international partners and a marketing operation with a worldwide focus.

From small beginnings, and against formidable odds, Anant Singh has risen to become widely acknow­ledged as the country's top film producer and, certainly, South Africa's first black film producer. Accepted and respected internationally, he is today one of the most successful independent producers in the world. His films have not only been ac­claimed by the movie critics, but have also achieved the key ingredient of box-office success.

A 1995 Weekly Mail & Guardian profile describes him thus:

The thing about Anant Singh is that he doesn't look or behave like a mogul: there's none of that brandy-guzzling cigar-chomping "Buy! Sell!" swagger about him. His style is Spiel­berg rather than Meyer: a jeans and sneakers guy, studied informality masking a shrewdness and a toughness that has made him, in our little corner of the firmament, a shimmering star; a phenomenon whose rags-to-riches story equals at least that of a Chaplin, a Meyer, a Goldwyn.

Singh' s first feature film, A Place of Weeping, directed by Darrell Roodt ( 1986), was the first anti­apartheid motion picture made in South Africa, by South Africans, and received world-wide acclaim. Again with Roodt in the director's chair, in 1992 Singh brought us Sarafina! -the moving story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba and Leleti Khumalo.

The height of this producer-director partnership came with Singh' s acquisition of the film rights to Alan Paton's classic South African novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. The movie brought internationally­acclaimed actors James Earl Jones and Richard Harris together with local talent in the form of Vusi Kenene, Leleti Khumalo and Abigail Kubeka. The world premiere in New York in October 1995, attended by President Nelson Mandela and Hillary Rodham-Clinton, was followed by an equally glit­tering local premiere. Again, a critical and com­mercial triumph for Singh.

Anant Singh is not simply another traveller on the bandwagon of the South African struggle, however. Human stories are central to his films -whether they be stories of the struggle, or a "small-town tale about a malcontent family rescued by a circus clown", as one description of his recent success, Paljas, would have it.

Paljas - released on South African and international screens earlier this year, is Singh's first Afrikaans film and saw him collaborating for the first time with another top South African filmmaker, director Katinka Heyns. Singh readily admits that he "would not have dreamed of touching" an Afrikaans film ten years ago. Political transformation in South Africa was the reason he supported Paljas, which he de­scribes as an "Afrikaans film with integrity", telling a universal story.

Described by critics as having "remarkable power", "raw energy and commitment", and "packing the power of its convictions", Paljas has also won audiences over and made the top ten at the local box-office.

On the international front, Singh has worked in co­production partnerships with Britain's BBC Films to turn out films such as Captives, selected for a gala presentation at the 1994 Toronto Film Festival, Face shot in the United Kingdom with an impressive British cast and premiered at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival, and The Theory of Flight, shot last year in London and Wales with top British actor/director Kenneth Branagh in the lead.

Most recently, and closer to home, he has com­pleted production in South Africa on Bravo Two Zero, the story of a crack SAS troop whose Gulf War mission to infiltrate Iraqi territory goes horribly awry.

In addition to entertaining us on the silver screen, Anant Singh has also ensured that significant moments in South Africa's transition to democracy have been recorded for posterity. His 1994 docu­mentary Countdown to Freedom, narrated by James Earl Jones and Alfre Woodard, documents South Africa's first free and fair elections and includes exclusive footage intimately revealing the inner workings of Nelson Mandela's election campaign, his final steps from prisoner to President.

Prisoners of Hope took Singh to Robben Island for a reunion of 1250 former political prisoners, led by President Mandela, and he has also recently com­pleted a series of documentaries on the President, presidential adviser Ahmed Kathrada, fiery Indian woman and anti-apartheid activist Dr Goonam, and playwright Athol Fugard.

One film critic describes Singh as being "at it all the time", and it is not difficult to see why. As one project is completed, there is at least another one on the boil, and he currently has in script stage the story of Fulbright Scholar Amy Biehl, ·murdered in a Cape Town township by militant youths in August 1993, as well as the movie of Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. That Presi­dent Mandela personally backed Singh's bid for those coveted film rights says much about the esteem in which the filmmaker is held.

Singh's skill and acumen have also been recognised by the Arts, Culture, Science and Technology minis­try, which has appointed him to the Arts and Culture Task Group -charged with setting a national agenda for the arts -and to the Interim Film Fund which is intended ultimately to become a South African film commission aimed at nurturing South African talent and providing opportunities to previously disadvantaged filmmakers.

Described by colleagues as an "uncomplacent person" who is always looking to move ahead into new projects, Singh has recently expanded his interests into the media and broadcasting world. He is a substantial shareholder and director of JSE-­listed Kagiso Media which has strong interests in print and electronic media, controlling the former SABC-owned East Coast Radio in Durban and Radio Oranje in the Free State. He is also a member of the Free-to-Air Consortium which is an applicant for the first private free-to-air television licence in South Africa.

For his wide-ranging contributions to the South African film industry and for taking South African stories and talent to the world; his efforts to raise awareness locally and abroad, through the medium of film, of the injustices of apartheid; and for his commitment to recording South Africa's history for generations to come, the University of Port Elizabeth is proud to confer on Anant Singh the degree of Doctor Philosophiae, honoris causa.