Catch a Fire (2006)
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This style of film-making is much more interesting than films like Syriana or (especially) The Constant Gardener. In those, the director appears to make a show of promoting a worthy world view, but doesn't really seem committed to the political cause. It felt gratuitous, the director simply exploiting our interest in political conspiracies without necessarily sharing that interest. Whatever it takes to get bums on seats.
It is a difficult balance for a director. You want to do a story that you know is going to be hard to sell. So you need a big name or two to get the studio on board. But then you're stuck with a highly recognisable face that everyone knows is American but has to use an Afrikaaner accent.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tim Robbins was completely believable as the South African police interrogator. His accent seemed flawless, and with his excellent acting I was able to buy-in to his character immediately. And I assumed that Derek Luke, who played the protagonist Patrick Chamusso, was African. In fact, he's from LA and has appeared in Spartan and Antwone Fisher (in the title role).
Apartheid, like say Nazism or so-called terrorism, is an easy target. It doesn't take much effort to totally demonise even minor participants, even though they may be ordinary people. Noyce skilfully avoided such caricatures. Using effective cinematic devices, he was able to portray that both the protagonist and the antagonist had much in common. They both had two daughters, and both loved their families and their country. But one became a torturer and one became the tortured.
Noyce's portrayal of Apartheid was very balanced. Robbin's character Vos was a family man with a job. His family loved him, but at work he was a man to be feared. Torture is a method that has been shown to not work. Both Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo and Noyce's Catch A Fire illustrate this by depicting false confessions that were actually made by innocents. According to Noyce at the Q&A session that proceeded the film, the confessions made by Chamusso after he joined the ANC were deliberately sparse on detail and designed to appease but ultimately frustrate his interrogators.
I asked Noyce if the film was making a statement about current world events, and he acknowledged that it was. It is very relevant to the war on terror and the West's turning to inhumane methods. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", he quoted. Patrick Chamusso was a hero, he said, not because he took up arms, but because he renounced them. The ANC had a policy of not harming innocents, but this wasn't always the case. Chamusso was unsuccessful (and was jailed), because he was careful to follow this policy.
Phillip Noyce is showing himself to be a deft master of quietly subversive films with commercial appeal, but ultimately they are socio-political commentaries with a strong humanitarian element. This film should have wide appeal among both casual movie-goers and the more serious cinephiles.
All acting was done perfect. I loved the cinematography with the plant in the background. I could really feel the emotion of the Africans chanting and singing for freedom.
Some will say this movie is racist towards white people. It is nothing of the sort. It even has a white or two on the side for justice. This movie didn't make Tim Robbin's character look evil. At least I didn't think so. I saw him as a man doing what he thought he needed to do to protect his family.
I think we need to learn from this story. There are terrorists all over the world. We say they are pure evil. We say we will solve the problem by hunting them down and killing them. With some, that may be necessary. But most just want justice, and want to be heard.
Derek Luke plays Patrick Chamusso, a (real life) black African who becomes radicalised as a result of his wrongful detention and torture by South Africa's ruling white party. Conscious of his duty to support a family, Patrick keeps his head down, having nothing to do with terrorists and 'trouble-makers' who want to attack the massive oil-refinery where he works as a foreman. Patrick doesn't even let his aging inlaw listen to the 'Radio Freedom' channel. But after a false arrest and incarceration - during which time he is not charged and so has no right to a lawyer - Patrick is beaten senseless and then sees the same treatment meted out to his wife. The experience convert him to the cause as soon as he gets out and he's off to Mozambique to train as an ANC freedom fighter.
Patrick's opponent is Tim Robbins, who plays Nic Vos, the Colonel in an anti-terrorist squad. In a poignant montage, we see Vos receiving a medal, intercut with another shot showing the burial of murdered ANC fighters (who receive a gun-salute).
The average movie would already have made simplistic references to Guantanamo (or any other political hot topic), reduced Chamusso and Vos to mere ciphers, moralised to the point of being patronising, or wallowed in sentimentality. But Noyce is no average director. He has produced sterling thrillers such as The Bone Collector but, more importantly, has shown himself to have a firm grasp of human rights, seen in both his treatment of The Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence. This film is about the making of a terrorist, but within a specific historical context, and makes no judgement beyond South Africa.
The hybridisation of South African society is competently developed. Our story is told primarily from the viewpoint of blacks. This is in contrast to the usual Hollywood formula which would show whites mistreating them, and then whites eventually (and heroically) developing more enlightened views. We get to know Patrick, his family, his shortcomings, his daily life and his love of football. Yet focussing too narrowly on him could have turned Catch a Fire into mere polemic. Instead, Robbins is also allowed to develop the character of Vos, who we see as a man doing what he believes is best rather than someone who is an out-and-out monster. The Colonel also has a family he loves, and teaches his daughters that his job is to make the country a safe place for them to live in. He can calmly oversee torture one minute and play good cop the next -yet conveying sincerity to both attitudes.
South Africa today is neither the country that it was under apartheid, nor the country that it was before outside nations established control. Crucial insights paved the way for South Africa's 'freedom' - rather than a victory of one race over another. Concepts like universal sharing and passive resistance. This is epitomised in the film when a saying of Nelson Mandela is recalled - 'we can never be free until we learn to forgive'.
The real life Patrick (who makes a brief appearance in the film) now lives with Conney, a woman he married after his release. They have children of their own and have fostered over 70 AIDS orphans at their Two Sisters charity (http://www.twosisters.org.za/ - which appears in the end-credits). The addition of documentary details may annoy some audiences who wanted to leave the cinema purely after a thriller, but for this viewer the cut to real-life seemed an excellent anchor without giving way to sermonising.
Catch a Fire is a complex political thriller based on at least one historical character. It documents an important chapter of history. The degree to which there are parallels or lessons for other situations in the present day is left entirely for the viewer. What is clear is that Noyce has once again handled a multifaceted and challenging story with skill and even-handedness.
In addition, the subject of the film speaks loudly to the audience about the dangers of a government that misuses it's power and the sometimes forceful means that must be undertaken when peaceful measures fail.
See the film, engage your conscience, and follow in the footsteps of a hero.