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Ashley Lazarus, Director of Apartheid-Era Cult Classic, Returns to Screen

DURBAN–Director Ashley Lazarus, whose film about the interracial friendship between two young boys during the apartheid era became a South African cult classic in the 1970s, is set to return to the big screen with a film that builds on his life-long passion for early-childhood education.

“Teacher Wanted” is the inspirational story of a teacher who fights to win over the unruly students in a struggling township school. It stars Themba Ntuli as a teacher who, like the actor himself, was born with a hormone deficiency that stunted his growth, giving him the appearance of a 12-year-old boy.

“The idea comes from our passion for early education. It comes from my love for the youth,” says Ntuli, who is an ambassador for the Early Education Foundation in South Africa.

The film – which turns on the teacher’s uncanny ability to relate to his students, because of his youthful look – is part of what the actor describes as a broader goal to uplift and inspire.

“Acting for me was a way to overcome some of my insecurities about my height,” says Ntuli, who appeared in “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” and Sean Penn’s “The Last Face.” A popular comedian and motivational speaker, he says he found “something of value within me” by grappling with adversity. He now tries to share that message with others.

“Do not look at my outer appearance. Look at what I say, look at what I do,” he says. “And then you realize that actually, my voice is bigger than my height.”

Lazarus’ feel-good film “e’Lollipop” was the highest-grossing film in South African history when it was released in 1976. It was bought by Universal, which released it in North America as “Forever Young, Forever Free.”

“‘E’Lollipop’ took on the need of South Africa to overcome the negativity of apartheid and the ramifications,” said Lazarus. “We rose above apartheid and made a film about friendship between the love of two children. And that transcended apartheid.”

The director left South Africa in the 1980s and emigrated to the United States, where he worked for the likes of Disney, Mattel and Sesame Street. When he returned to South Africa, he was asked to develop a localized e-learning mobile classroom for preschool students by the non-profit organization JAM, which feeds more than a million South Africans under the age of six every day.

Working with the youth has been a life-long cause for Lazarus. “If you don’t get the kid by six, you’ve lost him,” he says. “In South Africa, early education is in a shambles. I’ve talked to teachers who need inspiration. There’s a need to show that this needn’t be.”

He adds that “Teacher Wanted” is “not a solution. It’s just an inspiration.”

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