Catch Catch a Fire

For­get what you know about aw­ful apartheid films

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY FRIK ELS frike@fin­week.co.za

IT’S AL­READY PAINFUL to watch films about apartheid. When they are badly done, as I’m afraid most have been, it’s ag­o­nis­ing. Coun­try of my Skull, – now show­ing on satel­lite as In My Coun­try (al­ways a bad sign when ti­tles are changed) – about the TRC is a prime ex­am­ple.

As al­ways, stars are brought in from over­seas to play the leads. Is this to im­prove the box of­fice? In My Coun­try earned $163 536 (R1,19m at to­day’s ex­change rate) in the US, no doubt af­ter mak­ing gen­er­ous use of SA’s film sub­si­dies.

Juli­ette Binoche, the most over­ex­posed ac­tress in French cin­ema his­tory, plays an Afrikaner. She sounds like a Bul­gar­ian play­ing an Aus­tralian im­i­tat­ing a Nor­we­gian. Like Cry Free­dom, A World Apart and oth­ers, In My Coun­try is heavy handed, plod­ding, preachy, sen­ti­men­tal and, worst of all, to­tally unau­then­tic.

Armed with this, I ap­proached the latest nonSA-pro­duced film to tackle apartheid, Catch a Fire, with more than a lit­tle scep­ti­cism. Again the hero, Pa­trick Chamusso, is played by a nonSouth African (Derek Luke), while Hol­ly­wood em­i­nence Tim Rob­bins por­trays Colonel Nic Vos of the feared Po­lice Se­cu­rity Branch. The only lo­cal lead is Chamusso’s wife Pre­cious – Bon­nie Mbuli – last seen in Drum, a great film about Sophi­a­town that doesn’t de­serve to be lumped with the fail­ures men­tioned above. To top it all, the di­rec­tor is an Aus­tralian (Phillip Noyce.)

Catch a Fire tells the true story of Chamusso who, as a fore­man at Sa­sol and a ded­i­cated fam­ily man, wants noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. But it’s the early Eight­ies – a time when the armed strug­gle was gain­ing mo­men­tum out­side the coun­try and within its borders in­sur­rec­tion against the gov­ern­ment was steadily in­creas­ing. Chamusso be­comes rad­i­calised when Vos im­pris­ons and tor­tures him and in­tim­i­dates his wife

The happy times didn’t

last. (with worse to come) ac­cus­ing him of sab­o­tag­ing the Se­cunda re­fin­ery. The rest of the story, ded­i­cated to Joe Slovo and penned by Shawn Slovo, is his­tory. And as was of­ten the case in SA, the facts are more amaz­ing than fiction could be.

Catch a Fire is more thriller than his­tory les­son though, and af­ter a slow start reaches break­neck pace. It’s good cin­ema, not just good in­ten­tions.

Al­though I can­not re­ally com­ment on the ac­cu­racy of a Por­tuguese-EnglishFana­galo-in­flu­enced ac­cent, Luke is ex­cel­lent as Chamusso. Rob­bins does a fair Boer im­i­ta­tion, but I doubt very much if his chil­dren would’ve spo­ken with English pri- vate-school ac­cents only bro­ken by the odd Afrikaans phrase. Thank­fully, Catch a Fire is suf­fi­ciently grip­ping that pro­nun­ci­a­tion and pe­riod de­tails that miss the mark even­tu­ally go un­no­ticed. The over­all look and feel is very close to what I re­mem­ber of the time.

The film is not free of pros­e­lytis­ing, how­ever, and given the themes of de­ten­tion with­out trial, tor­ture and ter­ror­ism, the writer and di­rec­tor seem too ea­ger to send mes­sages to those fight­ing to­day’s war on ter­ror. With so much to fit into the hour and forty min­utes, the time taken up by this could’ve been used to de­velop the main char­ac­ters fur­ther, es­pe­cially Pre­cious. At the end of the film it’s clear that she suf­fered the most of all.

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