JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When David Barkham set about to design the sets for a movie filming here, he didn't have to do that much research; he just had to remember.
The movie, called "Inside," is about a young, idealistic white South African who gets involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and is thrown into jail where he is brutally interrogated, tortured physically and psychologically.
That's exactly what happened to Mr. Barkham in 1966 as a college student in Durban. He spent six months in solitary confinement. Though he was not driven to suicide like the character played by Eric Stoltz, he said the experience changed him.
"Doing this movie has been a real catharsis for me," he says. "After I got out of jail, I went to America for a while, stayed in San Francisco during those drug days.
"Being in solitary really affects you. When I came back here, I was more involved with myself and sort of forgot about the liberation struggle. Maybe that was their intent all along."
As he talked, Mr. Barkham, the film's art director, was standing in one of the sets he had built, a dark, bleak row of jail cells. The bright sunlight outside came in dribs and drabs, through the bars at the end of the hall, through the small holes on each of the cell doors.
"We took some liberties. We put in a bed and a desk because we needed them for certain scenes. The cells didn't actually have those; you slept on a thick piece of felt on the floor. And we didn't put in a window. Cells always had a window for some reason."
"Inside," directed by Arthur Penn, is financed by Showtime, the cable channel. It will be released in theaters, probably next spring, before going to television.
Written by Bima Stagg, an American who has lived in South Africa periodically for the last 20 years, it will be one of the first films to look at this country's transition into the post-apartheid era.
The story takes place in 1985, when Mr. Stoltz's character is arrested and interrogated by a policeman played by Nigel Hawthorne; and in 1995 when the tables have turned as Mr. Hawthorne's character is now being questioned by an investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about what happened a decade before. The investigator is played by Lou Gossett Jr.
"Inside" is part of a small boom in filmmaking in South Africa, which has the same kind of six-months-of-no-rain weather that first attracted the industry to Southern California.
Mr. Gossett first worked here on "A Good Man in Africa" with Sean Connery two years ago. Last year, James Earl Jones came to make a new version of "Cry, the Beloved Country," which premieres this weekend.
A production on Gandhi's years in South Africa for Indian television has just finished filming, while a British miniseries on Cecil Rhodes is currently in production, along with a movie about that adventurous South African dog, "Jock of the Bushveld."
At first glance, "Inside" appears to suffer from the same problem as "Cry Freedom," the movie that was allegedly about black-consciousness leader Steve Biko but actually followed his lawyer Donald Woods' escape from South Africa. It was criticized for pushing the black character into the background while providing a white protagonist for the American audience to identify with.
But Mr. Stagg says he believes that making both the interrogator and his victim Afrikaners reveals much about the South African condition.
"I have always been fascinated by the division within the Afrikaner community," he says.
Afrikaners are the white descendants of the original Dutch, German and French settlers of South Africa, the people who fought the British in the Boer wars and whose institution of apartheid was seen as part of their nationalist drive.
"There's drama in the trauma of people being torn apart by something like that," he says of the split over apartheid. "If the prisoner had been a black man, the interrogator would have just 'done' him and that would have been that. It would have been a one-dimensional relationship.
"By making them both Afrikaners, with one thinking the other is a traitor to his country, you reveal more layers."
"Inside" still runs the risk of repeating what has become a South African cliche -- the evil Afrikaner vs. the liberal white and beatific black.
"I don't think that will be the case because of the way this character is written," says Mr. Hawthorne of his character in "Inside."
"He's such an appealing fellow, very avuncular, very witty. You can't help but like him in many ways, which says a lot about apartheid," says the actor, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1994's "The Madness of King George."
A native of England who grew up in Cape Town, Mr. Hawthorne fell into the clipped rhythms of the Afrikaner accent fairly easily. It was a bit more of a challenge for Mr. Stoltz.
"I play the character sort of English," the American actor explains. "He went to Oxford and I see him as the type of person who wanted to assimilate."
"Inside" is being made on a cable-movie budget of about $5 million, minuscule by Hollywood standards.
"Everyone is working on a 'most-favored-nation' status," says producer Hilly Elkins of the actors' relatively small salaries. "They all loved the material. They recognized that this is a story that needs to be told and has not yet been told."
The movie is virtually a stage play, filmed almost entirely on three sets built within a studio in a Johannesburg suburb.
It could have been made anywhere in the world, but it was brought to South Africa in part because of Mr. Gossett's commitment to the country.
"I'm trying to bring one project a year here," says Mr. Gossett, who is also an executive producer on the film. "I've gotten very involved with this country."
But director Penn was more succinct about why "Inside" is here. "This film had to be made in South Africa," he says. "It couldn't be made anywhere else.
"For one thing, we couldn't have gotten a crew like this. If this had been made in America, it would have just been another job. But this crew puts a part of themselves in this story. They pay attention to every little detail."
No one pays more attention than Mr. Barkham.
"I think they got it right," he says of the interrogation scenes. "Those guys who questioned you could be so nice and charming, then so vicious. I finally signed my confession. By the time they finished with me, I would have signed anything."
One piece of research Mr. Barkham did do was to go back to the room where he was interrogated at the old police headquarters in Pretoria, now the police museum. He took measurements and studied the heavy shutters over the windows.
"It was the same room where they had interrogated Nelson Mandela a few years before," Mr. Barkham says. "I remember one of the policemen told me, 'Nelson Mandela sat in that chair. He told us he was going to be president of South Africa one day. What a bloody cheeky Kaffir!' "
Mr. Barkham looks up and smiles, the fiction of the jail he had created finally victorious over its factual counterpart.