An ordinary man, an extraordinary life

TELLING AN INTRIGUING STORY: Samuel interviews Essop Pahad

Enver Samuel, the producer and director of the documentary, Indians Can’t Fly, had a long walk with the production before it achieved two SAFTA awards.

The 48-minute film celebrates the life of Ahmed Timol, the anti-apartheid activist who died on 27 October 1971 after being thrown from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square by the security police.

Indians Can’t Fly was nominated for three awards, namely for Best Director, Best Documentary and Best Editor in the category Documentary Short and won in the Best Director and Best Documentary Short.

Samuel started with the project as early as 1996 when he found an article on the death of Ahmed Timol in the Sunday Times Magazine.

“I recognised it as being an intriguing story and cut it out and left it in my study where it promptly gathered dust and was forgotten as I began a prolific career producing and directing content for the SABC and MNet. When the SABC put out briefs in 2011 looking for autobiography documentaries, I thought it was high time to tell the tale of Ahmed Timol. The inspiration to tell the story came about when I discovered in 2012 that Ahmed Timol’s nephew Imtiaz Cajee had written a book on his uncle. I contacted him and got the family’s buy in to the project.”

The film was commissioned in 2012, shooting took place in 2013 and 2014 and post-production was completed in 2015.

Producing the doccie was not an easy task, especially due to finances. Samuel recalls, “It was a small production hampered by a small budget. In fact, towards the end I had to take money out of my home loan to complete it. For example, the SABC gave me a measly budget of R5 000 for archive. I spent more than R30 000 for archive.”

To top it all Samuel also had to hunt for information on the incident because all the relevant records have been destroyed. However Samuel’s team managed to get the coroner’s docket from a lawyer which conclusively proved that Timol had been tortured prior to his death.

“What fascinated me about the story was that here was an ordinary man, a school teacher from Roodepoort High who made the decision to fight for the liberation of South Africa, joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, went for underground training in Russia, met a woman in London and fell in love with her but still decided to return to South Africa despite the danger.

“The question of his death which also intrigued me was: was he tortured to death, did he fall from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square while being hung out of the window during interrogation or did he commit suicide? Hence the title of the film, Indians Can’t Fly, a term the security police coined shortly after Timol’s death.

Samuel is also of the opinion that more can be done with the story. “It has the potential to be a full length film. I believe that the Ahmed Timol Trust is looking at possibilities.”

Not resting on his laurels, Samuel is already contemplating similar projects.

I am currently in the development stage with the assistance of the National Film & Video Foundation on my next feature length documentary called The Battlefield of Love, which focuses on a unique love story that rises out of the ashes of a tragic event in December 1989.”

Although Indians Can’t Fly was a taxing project for Samuel, he confesses that his greatest challenge as a director to date was working 18-hour days as content director for Survivor South Africa.

Samuel has the following to say about the defining characteristics of the South African creative industry today: “Wherever you go in the world, South African crew are known for their hard work and creativity. We are slowly but surely making inroads on the world’s stage; witness Miners Shot Down winning an Emmy award recently. The Afrikaans film market seems to have developed the right model, so we should learn from that.”


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