Catch a Fire

2007-04-14 12:09

Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a hard working, apolitical foreman at the Secunda Oil Refinery in the 1980s. Suddenly, in June 1980, Patrick and his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) are arrested by Security Branch policeman lead by Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) and brutally tortured on unfounded suspicions of terrorism. Stunned by the horror of his ordeal, Patrick leaves his family to secretly join the ANC and commits to fighting the oppressive system. The film climaxes in a mission to blow up the refinery, and concludes in the present day with a message of freedom, forgiveness, and hope for the future.


Leaning on your parents’ activist laurels is not a good enough reason to try to rewrite history, a point that seems entirely lost on screenwriter Shawn Slovo. Catch a Fire intellectually duller than Lumumba (2000) and stylistically sharper than Bunny Chow (2006), but it’s not a film we’d really want to use to tell South Africa’s stories. Not because it doesn’t put effort and a big budget into doing so, but because it doesn’t put heart into it. It’s a coffee table tale of the struggle that tries to make a feature film of one mans’ political journey without really going into the politics of the personal.

It doesn’t tell the real story of being caught in the paradoxes of apartheid; it sells a hero story of man against man. Reducing Chamusso’s story entire to a once-off, one-man onslaught antagonised by arch rival Colonel Nic Vos is a film-centric approach to a story that deserves far better. The screenplay is an inversion of a buddy flick, trying to generate drama from the ‘feud’ between the Colonel and Patrick.

The suggestion that their ‘battle’ symbolised the status quo of the day can only be put down to one big budget feature too many for a director who delves skin-deep. Chamusso’s final choice with the Colonel’s life blows this posturing right out of the sky the way no explosives could.

It is evident that Phillip Noyce has not analysed the processes of apartheid with the same refinement that Tim Robbins has examined his character. Robbins is unsurprisingly brilliant, from his perfectly paced intensity to his Afrikaans accent. But the insistence of using white men from America to pull audiences when this country has world-class talent is shameful.

As for Noyce’s handling of South African actors, there’s the distinct feeling that they are over directed. The lead lady and man only really get to have an honest moment to shine at the end, when it’s already too late. Both for their characters, and for the viewer.

Starting out as self-consciously slow-paced and superficial soap opera in the first half, the film only scratches the surface of the brutal realities faced by apartheid’s subjects and does neither the truth nor the tale any justice. Thankfully, Noyce’s professionalism prevails as things hot up to the climax, which is admittedly as gripping and tear jerking as any well crafted formula film, so you can at least expect to be adequately entertained by the efforts.

In its defence, Catch a Fire redeems itself a little at the end with a documentary-like postscript. Moving from fiction to fact, the real Patrick Chamusso meets the lead actor (Derek Luke), and they kick a soccer ball around in mutual appreciation of hard-won liberation. This doubling-up reveals more about Chamusso’s character in a few minutes than the tight directing let through the whole feature.

If Sting is right about history repeating itself, then we’d better try harder. It’s not too late to get over ourselves; so block your ears when the Die Stem resounds, and let’s tell it like it really is.

- Jess Henson
South Africa’s liberation struggle is not fodder for a middle of the road feature, whether or not it was written by a local screenwriter.

Ed 2007/02/07 9:59 AM
Don't agree with Jess The reviewer seems to be upset because "foreigners" told one of our stories. At least it was told. Describing Mr Chamusso's story as "fodder" and the film as a middle of the road feature only serves to confirm that she is angry at the story not being told with enough integrity and brushed over by what she seems to believe are whimsical foreigners only out to make a quick dollar. I disagree (although we all know what opinions are). This film has integrity. It is a well crafted story about hope and heart. It shows the rest of us 'Safricans' (and the world) that what were once unanimously referred to as "terrorists" were merely men who took control of their own destiny and fought for something better for the country they loved and called home. I do agree with the point about casting foreginers, but for this we must not blame the film makers and the writer. Blame the studio execs and the distributors who won't fund and distribute your film unless you cast the bums in seats men and women of
2007/02/08 5:45 AM
Jess you are in idiot!! History repeat it self...yea right!! Get over yourself bud...and by the way we should be proud of all parts of OUR(all SAfricans) national anthem!
bernice 2007/02/08 1:43 PM
at least our stories are being told can we all just be happy that somebody is willing to tell our stories, and allow people to have opinions i think bonnie was good in this movie
Jeff 2007/02/11 9:40 PM
Jess you're wrong 1)It is in fact Chamuso NOT Chamusso. 2)As a film reviewer yourself , I'm totally amazed at your statement that "But the insistence of using white men from America to pull audiences when this country has world-class talent is shameful." You of all people should know why American actors are used. 3) Never start a sentence with "But..."
Freddy 2007/02/12 8:57 AM
Catch a Fire It is a good movie to start with. I do not have a problem with the usage of American actors (Tim and Luke) given that they have a good reputtion within the movie industry. The only problem, thought, is the - perhaphs for South Africans - is that they will be able to pick the "skewed" accent of Tim and Luke that it is unSouth African. Yes, I agreee the movie centers around Çhammusos' family and the police's brutality. Granted, it's a story about SA's past told in a two men approach, still resembling the past's entire happenings. It is beffiting to mention that the PEAK for me was the intelligence used by the ploce force, those guys can destroy you is they wanted ( The showing of a pregnants' helper and Patrick's picture to his wife). I guess for South Africans, it is another story told in a compact way, whilst for outsiders, they will get to see how bad was the past system. More than anything, i guess the Slovo daughters wanted to tell Patrick's story after the struggle with the late J
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