12/06/2013 12:50 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Nelson Mandela remembered at movie screenings of biopic

An emotional audience packed into a Toronto theatre for Nelson Mandela Park Public School's charity screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Thursday night, which took place just hours after the anti-apartheid icon died.

Organized weeks earlier, the sneak-peek screening and charity fundraiser became an opportunity for the students, staff and alumni who attended to mourn as well as to celebrate Mandela's life.

"It amplifies it so much more. I expect a lot of tears in the audience today. I expect people to be very sad and it's going to be a heartfelt movie," said former student Mitchell Atkinson, who met the South African leader when Mandela visited his namesake school in 2001.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on the autobiography of the same name and starring British actor Idris Elba, is slated to open to wide release in Canadian cinemas on Dec. 25.  

British royal premiere

News of Mandela's passing broke during the U.K. premiere of the film in London Thursday evening, during a special screening where Prince William, Kate, Mandela's daughters Zindzi and Zenani as well as the drama's lead actors Elba and Naomie Harris were in attendance.

Mandela's daughters left the cinema mid-performance, but insisted it continue.

When the screening ended, producer Anant Singh — to whom Mandela had personally awarded film rights to the memoir — announced the ailing activist and world leader had died. He then asked for a moment of silence.

"What an honour it was to step into the shoes of Nelson Mandela and portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers, and championed human rights before the eyes of the world," Elba said.

"My thoughts and prayers are with his family."