Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Richard Attenborough

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Richard Attenborough

Article excerpt

Richard Attenborough

The director of Gandhi and Cry Freedom reflects on the topicality of films about Third World countries and the prospects for African cinema.

How did you come to make a film about apartheid?* -- I wanted to make a film about South Africa and commissioned several scripts but until I read Donald Woods' book I had not found a subject which I felt was sufficiently pertinent or which contained sufficient optimism and hope for the future. Nor had I found a subject which I felt had a chance of reaching a sufficiently large number of people. It seemed to me that to reach only an audience which was already aware of what was happening in South Africa and concerned about the situation there was a waste of time. I wanted to reach people who were indifferent, who didn't know what was going on and didn't care. It was only when I read Donald's book that I thought I had found a subject to which people in many parts of the world would find it possible to relate.

Most important of all, of course, I wanted to reach an American audience because it was, I thought, in the United States that a fundamental change of attitude towards the administration of South Africa was likely to be most influential.

A number of black people--not the majority by any means--believe that I dodged the issue and that by not tackling the subject purely from a black African's point of view I smudged the edges. I don't agree with that.

I think it is a well made and wonderfully acted film. The script is immensely skilful, but it may be that my concern to reach a wider audience in fact resulted in a misjudgement. Whereas the picture will probably gross something like $45-50 million worldwide it will gross under $10 million in the United States. I believed that Americans would go to see it and that black people in particular would be angry with what is going on in South Africa. I thought that the picture--even if it wasn't as incisive as they might have hoped--nevertheless had its heart in the right place.

It is fascinating that most black people in the United States did not go to the movie. It did worse business in Atlanta than it did in Los Angeles, although it did terrific business in Washington, which of course has a large black population, so I don't really know whether I made a total miscalculation in assuming that there was an audience in America who would be interested in this kind of subject.

There is no question whatsoever that the film actually affected the political debate in some countries and from all I can gather it was justified in that millions of people have been affected by it. But the fact remains that with hindsight I am enormously disappointed in attendances in the States.

Cry Freedom was released at a time when a number of films were coming out about Africa, just as a number of films and TV films about India appeared around the time when you made your film Gandhi. How would you account for this interest in the Third World? Is the present crop of films about Africa a reflection of nostalgia for British colonialism or a desire to change apartheid? -- It is very difficult to be certain. Suddenly an interest seems to arise in science fiction, in detective stories, nostalgia, historical subjects or love stories or whatever.

As far as Gandhi is concerned there is no question whatsoever that the film opened up Indian material for serious film-making. Gandhi was in the air for twenty years, and the studios consistently maintained that nobody was interested in India. When I went to see the head of one major studio I was told "Who on earth do you think is interested in a little brown man wearing a shirt and carrying a bean pole?" It was only because of the enormous attention that the film attracted long before it came out that financiers began to think that the subject might have some potential. This paved the way for an examination of imperialism, colonialism and other related subjects. …

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