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‘London Recruits’ Lifts the Lid on True Story of Courageous British Volunteers in Fight Against Apartheid (EXCLUSIVE)

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When the film biz jetset lands at O.R Tambo airport for this week’s 6th Joburg Film Festival they’d be amazed by a little-known story of how the airport’s namesake was the mastermind behind a plan to recruit ordinary British working-class volunteers to travel to South Africa and detonate pamphlet bombs in the 1970s during the height of Apartheid.

The fascinating story has been made into a thrilling documentary by director Gordon Main, “London Recruits,” featuring interviews with those who went, interspersed with Super 8 archive footage and dramatic reenactments. It is the festival opener.

Based on the 2012 book, the U.K.’s Barefoot Rascals teamed up with producer Robyn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo, who was a major figure in South Africa’s anti-Apartheid struggle, as well as Jacintha de Nobrega’s Arclight Productions in South Africa.

The result is an edge-of-your-seat documentary thriller set in the early 1970s, blending elements of espionage, courage, sacrifice and jaw-dropping twists, complete with false-bottom suitcases full of pamphlets.

“I came across the story in an old, working-class boxing pub near the docklands in Cardiff. I was sitting with a friend who said ‘I’ve got this great story which I think you guys could turn into a film.’ His mentor told him ‘When I was your age I went to South Africa undercover with leaflets in a suitcase for Oliver Tambo,” Main told Variety.

“As he was telling me the story, I said ‘Really? I’m pretty clued up on history. I don’t think that happened. We’d know if people from London had gone out and done something like that.’ I then arranged a meeting with the guy and sure enough, it turns out, there were several of them. Once I realized it was true, I thought this has just got a great movie written all over it.”

In September, it will be a decade since Main had his first meeting with these erstwhile London recruits.

“These were just ordinary people next door but who went and did this extraordinary thing to support the ANC and the liberation struggle in South Africa. They stuck to what they’ve been asked to do — they were distributing literature that was produced by the ANC in exile.”

“None of them talked. Everyone thought it was just them. They were told by Tambo not to tell anyone and they kept that omerta right through until their very late adult lives and I think there’s something very powerful about that.”

Main said the production wanted to stay away from traditional archive film footage and asked expats in the U.K. and people in South Africa who had Super 8 that they’d shot of any stuff in the late 60s and early 70s.

“We had a huge response — that’s the most of our archive — and it was shot by amateurs in those cities at that time. So ‘London Recruits’ has a kind of immediacy and an interesting look to it.”

“It’s a cracking story. It’s an adventure. It’s every bit as exciting as Jason Bourne or James Bond and these guys were trying to make the world a better place and there’s something incredibly powerful about that. These stories do take you somewhere different than mainstream cinema but they’re every bit as exciting, with as much jeopardy, bravery and heroics.”

Slovo says: “Some of these working-class participants have never travelled. They’ve never been on a plane. There’s something quite wonderful about their contribution to the struggle in South Africa — how brave they were, actually.”

“‘London Recruits’ is about a bunch of unlikely people who did this extraordinary thing. It wasn’t easy to make this film. It’s never easy to make this kind of documentary. By the time you get to the end of the film and you see the photographs of all the individual London recruits it’s really, really moving. And there’s a prison scene towards the end that’s really incredible,” she says.

“It’s a British story but it’s so totally about the history of South Africa that it would have been impossible to do it without being a co-production. It’s also an unknown story.”

De Nobrega says: “Any time you’re dealing with co-productions you’re dealing with two countries, two different cultures and you’re trying to find common ground. The common goal was a good story.”

“The way I believe filmmaking should be going is through co-productions,” she says.

“A single country doesn’t always have all the resources for filmmakers, so co-productions allow each producer to access different funds, whether government or rebates, and bring it all together. Working together, you’re able to create a product where the production values are higher, we are able to pay people better, and there’s a cultural exchange that you can’t get when you’re just working on your own in your own country.”