A soft-spoken Briton, Antony Thomas is not what you would call a firebrand. Sitting across from me at a Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C., he has a habit of squeezing his hands together before he speaks. But this 69-year old Emmy award-winning documentary maker is no stranger to political controversy -- and even, prison cells. When he was 23 years old and living in his native South Africa, he witnessed the severe mistreatment of a black African and intervened violently in his defense, landing in jail. It was at this time that he got his start in filmmaking.
His latest feat is an honorarium to Neda Agha Soltan -- the Iranian woman shot dead on the streets of Iran last year, in the aftermath of the corrupt Iranian elections. The documentary, For Neda, aired last month on HBO and at last reveals the young woman's personal fight for freedom. Though the regime has tried to suppress it, For Neda is going viral in Iran.
Born in Calcutta during colonial rule, Thomas spent his childhood among populations that were waging their own battles for freedom. When he was six years old, after his parents divorced, his family left India. "After India got its independence in 1947. I was taken to place where white people were still in charge -- South Africa."
In South Africa, Thomas spent his formative childhood years unaware of the brutality of apartheid. He explains that his family came from a "very right wing, colonial background." His father was a stockbroker and his grandfather was an investment banker -- "upper middle class British." Like most members of high colonial society, he left for England to be educated -- first at a gothic boarding school in Dorset and then at Cambridge University, where he studied English literature. During his undergraduate years, "people were gradually waking up to what apartheid was. On campus, there was a lot of attacking of South Africa, and I was immediately defensive of my country."
At that time, as it happens, a number of white intellectuals in South Africa were busy sugarcoating what was, in reality, blatant racism. "The narrative of this so-called verlighte [literally, "enlightened"] movement ran something like this: We admit that apartheid has its roots in the crudest form of racial discrimination, but it has now developed into something quite different, which we would prefer to call 'separate development.' Separate development means that black South Africans are being given independent rule in their own homelands. Through the government's education policy (so-called Bantu education) they are being taught about their own history and culture in their own languages, and Government subsidies are helping them establish their own businesses in their own areas, free of white competition."
Thomas was "completely taken in" by this, and at the age of 22 "embarked on a film to explain it." Commissioned by the South African government, The Anatomy of Apartheid was his first major break. But in the process of making the film, "I began to see reality." Thomas had free access to people and places that young whites like him seldom, if ever, experienced. "Instead of treating me like the enemy, Africans gently pointed out what a cruel farce all this talk of separate development really was…I gradually saw for myself that Bantu education was really a form of teaching designed to create a generation of servants."
Confronted with such facts, he underwent a political awakening which dramatically changed his life. He explains, "When I was 22, I was on afternoon-tea-terms with the Prime Minister. At the age of 23, I was in one of his jails." Finally, after making a film exposing the working conditions of African miners, he was banned from creating more films, and left for England in 1967. Ten years later, he was banned from South Africa altogether.
But living in England, Thomas couldn't shake his passion for South African politics. Ten years later, he returned to his home and made three films about apartheid. The reviewer for a leading South Africa paper the Cape Times wrote: "I have never seen such a powerful indictment of Apartheid on the television screen…. After this film, the South African Department of Information and all its associated publicists and propagandists across the world might as well fold their tents and steal away."
Despite his success, Thomas's conservative family had never been enthusiastic about his decision to pursue filmmaking. "Filmmaking was something not done by people like us." What's more, "There were tremendous tussles with my family when my political direction was established." Thomas' films, whose subjects range from obesity, to twins, to human sexuality, often transcend politics. He describes himself as politically "wide awake…I don't follow ideologies. Ideologies are bloody dangerous." His prescription is "Go by the facts. Go by the truth. Go by what's happening."
In their pursuit of the truth, three of his films about Islam and human rights abuses in the Middle East hold a broad appeal to people from all side of the political spectrum.
His 2008 film The Qur'an is notable for its frank discussion of the holy text's shadowy origins and, specifically, some of its controversial sexist verses, like "those wives you fear may be rebellious, admonish and beat them." The 1980 documentary Death of a Princess is about a Saudi girl's tragic attempt to break free from the rigid society in which she lived. Thomas recalls, "She was a sad girl who fell in love with a guy and made pathetic attempt to escape her country with him. Her grandfather [a Saudi prince] felt that he had had his masculinity belittled by her, so he had her killed." And his most recent film, For Neda, is a moving account of how one young Iranian woman's desire for freedom also led to her death.
Though the pursuit of freedom is a common feature of his films, what Thomas says is more important is the human element of each story he tells. Nearing the end of our conversation, Thomas humbly explains his passion for documentary making: "It's such a privilege to be immersed in other people's lives. I love it. I can't stop."