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Catch a Fire

  • Film

Time Out says

Africa and its history are now rich pickings for foreign producers, and no picking is richer than a true tale that pitches white guilt against black oppression in the manner of this intelligent drama that looks to apartheid South Africa in the early 1980s for a lesson in the ills of oppression – with some Hollywood thrills thrown in for good measure. It’s slightly disheartening that history must often be distant to get flowing the juices of filmmakers (and the cash of producers) but, although the campaign at its heart is over, ‘Catch a Fire’ still manages to claim some political importance and offers some striking performances, powerful images and informed writing so that its story feels as fresh as it possibly could three decades later.

The story of Patrick Chamusso is a cracking one. He was a 31-year-old ANC activist in 1981 when he planted a bomb at his former workplace, the Secunda oil refinery in the north-east of South Africa, under orders from the ANC. But what’s peculiar about Chamusso is that his conversion to radical politics came only months earlier. In 1980, he was enjoying a life as a foreman and family man when he was wrongfully accused of executing an earlier bombing. After weeks of questioning and torture, during which time his wife Precious was brutalised by the police and perhaps raped, Chamusso responded by joining the organisation of which the police had first suspected him of being a member.

Phillip Noyce – working from a well-informed and sensitive script from Shawn Slovo, who in 1988 wrote ‘A World Apart’ about her childhood as the daughter of an ANC activist – adds a simple framework to proceedings, subtly betraying his background in both high-energy Hollywood fare such as ‘Patriot Games’ (1992) and more liberal films such as ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ (2002). As a combination of styles, this has its uncomfortable effects, not least when the film enters full-on chase mode in the final act – a method which rubs against much of the good work that Noyce does to paint an intelligent picture of home and work life for both Chamusso and his dramatic nemesis Nic Vos, a fictional colonel in the police force who acts as our window on the Afrikaan establishment.

Noyce imports his leads from across the Atlantic: Derek Luke (‘Antwone Fisher’) plays Chamusso with compassion, while Tim Robbins is Vos and mostly avoids villainous tics (although some of Noyce’s more flashy shots don’t help his cause). The characterisation of Vos is a delicate balance: Noyce tries hard to make him a human but surely it’s a distraction to suggest, as he does, that Vos is an island of relative empathy among harder souls?

The film is at its best when making the most of the conflicts at the heart of apartheid.There’s a disturbing scene in which Vos brings Chamusso under arrest to have lunch at home with his family. And the high point of the film is when Noyce cuts powerfully between two rituals: the awarding of a medal to Vos and the burial of murdered ANC fighters in Mozambique. On the down side, a trite epilogue suggestive of South Africa’s process of truth and reconciliation could have been scrapped entirely.
Written by Dave Calhoun

Release Details

  • Rated:12A
  • Release date:Friday 23 March 2007
  • Duration:101 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Phillip Noyce
  • Screenwriter:Shawn Slovo
  • Cast:
    • Derek Luke
    • Tim Robbins
    • Bonnie Mbuli
    • Mncedisi Shabangu
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