Catch Catch a Fire
Forget what you know about awful apartheid films
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.