Filming Robben Island

In 1993 Adam Low, director of Voices from the Island, was based in South Africa making a film about the prison, Robben Island. At a critical point in South Africa's history, Adam Low recounts some of the exceptional problems the crew faced whilst making the film.

The Island

Just a few miles off the coast of Cape Town lies Robben Island, the ‘Alcartraz’ of South Africa. A prison for over 200 years, the island has incarcerated outcasts from the mainland since the earliest days of European occupation. Surrounded by some of the most treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Island has been a place of detention, a leper colony, an asylum, and a World War II battery station, before eventually becoming a political prison after the Second World War. Following the Rivonia Trial of 1963, Nelson Mandela and the leaders of the African National Congress were sentenced to Robben Island for over 27 years.

The ‘Alcartraz’ of South Africa

Arena: Voices From the Island became a biography of a place which has played a unique part in South African history and was broadcast to coincide with the first fully democratic elections in April 1994.

When we were filming Voices from the Island in 1993 the island still housed a functioning prison, although there were no longer any political prisoners. It was administered by the South African Prisons Service and closed to the public. Until the first fully democratic election in 1994, there was still a Nationalist Government and we had to be very discreet about the kind of film we were making. In order just to visit the island, let alone to film inside the prison itself, we had to seek special permission from the Minister of Correctional Services.

After lengthy negotiations we were finally allowed to take the bumpy boat ride across to the Island for two full days of filming. We were put up in the governor's guest-house, a rather fine Victorian residence which was used for visiting VIPs. On arrival we were assigned a very watchful prison warder, who supervised our every move as we filmed the cells, prison yards, warder’s bar, leper cemetery and the lime quarry in which most of the ANC leadership had mined for over 20 years.

Interviewing The ANC

Many of the individuals we needed to interview, who had been prisoners on the island, were prominent members of the African National Congress. At the time of filming, the ANC were preparing for South Africa’s historic 1994 election campaign. Everything depended on how well the party did in South Africa's first democratic election and finding time to be interviewed for a BBC documentary was not going to be high on anyone’s list of priorities.

As politician after politician reneged on our carefully scheduled appointments, we eventually decided that the mountain should go to Mohammed. We were allowed to set up our camera and lights in the Board Room at the ANC headquarters, Johannesburg, which is where many of our principal interviewees were working: Andrew Mlangenis, Patrick 'Terror' Lekota, Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj,Tokyo Sekwale, and even Nelson Mandela himself. Having finally felt we were back on schedule, we left our equipment overnight in the boardroom ready for the next day's filming.

The following morning we arrived to find the door to the boardroom locked. We were told that there was an emergency ANC election meeting in progress and that we would have to wait for it to finish. Several hours later the doors opened and the entire ANC leadership, led by Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, filed past us out of the room. Mbeki (who was to become the second president of the new South Africa) joked as he passed by, ‘the ANC will have to get permission from the BBC for their meetings in future!’

In those days, shooting on film as we were, the 'rushes' had to be sent to London to be developed because there were no reliable laboratory facilities for 16mm film in South Africa. This was time-consuming and expensive, resulting in an agonising wait of over a week before we could view and check the quality of what we had filmed.

Stolen Rushes

After coming back from Robben Island we sent all the film that had been shot, together with the footage filmed the previous week in Port Elizabeth, back to London. The following day my production manager called me aside and said she had something to tell me. The van taking our rushes to the airport in Cape Town had been held up and robbed. Our precious film cans containing all our rushes had disappeared. We were in despair.

The van taking our rushes had been held up and robbed
Adam Low, Director

A week or so later another friend, who works in film in Cape Town, rang us with a very strange story. Someone she knew had been asked by a criminal source whether anyone might be interested in some cans of film that had ‘come their way?’ My friend had played it extremely cool and said she would ask around. To cut a very long story short, we managed to get the cans returned for a fee which was hugely less than what they (and the cost of reshooting the material) were worth to us. But that wasn't the end of the story. We had to find out whether the film had been damaged, even partly opening the cans would ruin the negatives inside. The only way we could check was to send the rushes to London to be developed. After another agonising week we finally got word that the rushes were fine and that our two days on Robben Island didn't need to be reshot.

Returning to the Island

One of the most moving moments during the filming was when we went back to Robben Island with veteran ANC leaders Walter Sisulu and Andrew Mlangenis, both of whom had been sentenced with Nelson Mandela by the Rivonia Trial in 1964. They came with their wives Albertina and June - neither of whom had ever been beyond the visitors centre during highly restricted visits, of only once or twice a year, to their imprisoned husbands.

Walter and Andrew, now in their seventies, became quite youthful as they showed their wives the quarry where they had worked digging and cutting lime. It was both touching and horrifying to think what these two gentle, loving couples had had to endure and humbling to realise the enormous strength that had allowed them to survive.

Jurgen Schadeberg (one of our co-producers), who had been a major photographer on Drum magazine, took a series of moving photographs following Walter and Andrew as they re-traced their steps around the island.

Arena: Voices From the Island - First broadcast 23rd April 1994.