An apartheid story no one would screen

Distributors would not take on a film with a black cast – so director promoted it himself

It is a film that tells the extraordinary "real-life" story of a black baby born to white parents in apartheid South Africa, which bears a six-figure budget, a Hollywood actor in its cast and a clutch of respectable write-ups from the critics.

So when only 30 people showed up for the first night of the UK countrywide release of Skin, starring Sam Neill and the Oscar-nominated Sophie Okonedo, at the Odeon at Panton Street in central London, its director Anthony Fabian was understandably worried.

In the absence of a major distributor to promote his film, he decided to take the matter into his own hands and sent out his very own team of "guerilla marketers" across London to advertise the drama. He has since spent weeks canvassing support himself and handing out flyers outside cinemas, while Hélène Muddiman, who wrote the musical score for the film, has visited Waterloo Station wearing a sandwich board. Since then, around 15 members of the public have joined his campaign.

Yesterday, Mr Fabian, who has previously worked on films including Goldeneye and Hilary and Jackie, starring Emily Watson, told The Independent that he was determined not to let the film sink in spite of limited distribution power.

"I was told by a respectable distributor in Britain that it would not distribute a film with a black cast," he said. "That appears to be the attitude in the industry. These films are perceived not to make money. So [because we didn't have a major distributor] we did not have any trailers in cinemas, or posters on the underground, or posters on the sides of buses," he said.

Days earlier, he had recorded his shock at the paltry turn-out at the first Panton Street screening of the film, in a blog: "I had a bucket of proverbial cold water thrown over my head: the numbers... had been disastrous. After all this amazing press, editorial coverage, great reviews – how was it possible?... I rang Helen Muddiman, and told her the bad news. 'The film's dead in the water unless the numbers are up this weekend'," he wrote.

Some hard work and persuasive words from Ms Muddiman meant the manager of the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, agreed to hold some screenings. "She went to the cinema personally to enthuse about the film and persuaded the manager to show," Mr Fabian said.

It tells the story of Sandra Laing, played by Okonedo, who has previously starred in Doctor Who and Hotel Rwanda, for which she was nominated at the Academy Awards, in 2004. Dark-skinned Laing was born to white parents but was classified as "coloured" during the Apartheid era. The biopic depicts the struggle of her parents – who were white with black ancestry – to have her re-classified in order to provide her with a formal education in a "whites-only" school.

Mr Fabian added that the film was nine years in the making, partly because of the sensitive subject matter. "I wanted to deal with the story responsibly, and there was also the difficulty in getting script rights," he said.

As a result of Mr Fabian's efforts, the film has improved on takings, and increased its daily showings. The film's distributor is ICA Films, part of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. While it will not go on general release, a spokeswoman from the ICA said it was being shown in a number of cinemas across the country as well as on DVD.

"I have been getting emails every day from people asking me where they can see the film," said Mr Fabian.

This is not the first time such "guerilla" tactics have been used to promote a film: in 1968, the first film screened by the ICA – Herostratus – recruited an attractive woman to walk the streets of London with a sandwich board.