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Articles

Catch a Fire: "Moral depravity in your daily work"
By Chris Wiggum
October 27, 2006 - 12:23 AM PDT


"The real story was more fantastic than anything you could make up."

Patrick "Hotstuff" Chamusso is the subject of Catch a Fire, the new film from Aussie director Phillip Noyce. One in a recent surge of dramatic thrillers set in the African continent, this one takes the novel and welcome approach of featuring a black African as its protagonist. Derek Luke plays the title role and Bonnie Henna his wife, the lovely-named Precious. Supporting player Tim Robbins turns in a terrific performance as Nick Vos, a police officer whose main beat is to guard a prominent oil refinery. Set during Apartheid-era South Africa, Catch a Fire is based on real events in the life of Patrick Chamusso and bristles with an activist-tinged relevancy that drives its message home without sacrificing plot fireworks for preachy convention. Patrick Chamusso's story - one of a political awakening of will - resonates with such vigor that, when the credits roll, it may take a while before you realize that not only have you just watched a "message" movie, you've also had an incredibly good time.

Director Phillip Noyce, actor Tim Robbins and screenwriter Shawn Slovo were recently in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival (where the film picked up the audience award). I sat down with them to talk about South Africa, Patrick's story, and (of course) politics.


Clearly a film like this, based on the real character of Patrick Chamusso and his life in South Africa, requires rigorous research. What was the most surprising discovery?

Tim Robbins: Discovering what the white South African culture was. Understanding it as a culture, as a heritage. Coming to understand that they had gone through their own struggle, their own journey. 300 years of settlement there... As an outsider, I certainly had no idea of the complexity of the Afrikaner culture and the fact that they had fled religious persecution, had settled Cape Town, been forced out of Cape Town, had to move in covered wagons to the middle of South Africa and settle what would eventually become Johannesburg. Being on the ground in Africa and talking to them and understanding what their journey was and how they wound up and the sense of fear that was in that culture and the idea that fear could lead to bad policy... I certainly couldn't judge the way I'd judged before. I had to understand the people in all their complexities.

Had you been to South Africa?

Robbins: Never had been to South Africa before. I had had my opinions from afar. I had been opposed Apartheid. I had joined in economic boycotts against it. I rallied to free Mandela. But I had no idea of either side's complexities. When you stand in the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and you understand the amount of laws that were passed and the degree of oppression that was involved and how multilayered it was - much more so than what the blacks in America were dealing with. It was an eye-opening experience.

You bring a lot of nuance to this role. You're at once somewhat evil, but also, at times, compassionate. Was it difficult to walk this line and keep from taking the character too far in one direction?

Robbins: The job of an actor is to not judge, to remain neutral. To try to find the humanity in whomever you play. Also, I worked with the idea that I was playing a police officer, a man whose job it was to protect the country. It's a tough enough job in a civil society. You see moral depravity in your daily work. To be a police officer in a state where the rule of law doesn't exist, where due process has been thrown out, where torture is encouraged, and then to take that moral burden on your shoulder, out of a sense of duty and patriotism, and to know probably somewhere in your heart that what you're doing is wrong but to shoulder that burden because you feel it's a necessary job to do - this struggle helped me define the role. Real fears existed in these men: that Communism was going to take over, that South Africa was going to go the way of other countries in Africa. They were tangible fears. It doesn't justify what they did; it doesn't rationalize what they did. I just simply tried to understand how good men could be led into morally reprehensible behavior.

Phillip, as an Autralian director, what attracted you to the story of Patrick Chammuso?

Phillip Noyce: A few years ago, I made another film called Rabbit-Proof Fence, which was about the extraordinary heroism of three unlikely heroines; three young, aboriginal, black, Australian children who went on a monumental journey across the Australian outback to get back home from a re-education center. I was really touched as a filmmaker when the eldest of those kids, at 87, died a few years ago, and her life was celebrated in San Francisco, in the New York Times, the LA Times, the London Times - major newspapers around the world - and I realized that that story, the story of an unlikely heroine, had touched people.

When I went and saw the [Catch a Fire] screenplay, I thought, "Here's another opportunity to inspire people with one man's courage." And this goes beyond Rabbit-Proof Fence even, because it's not only about a struggle and a problem, it's about a solution. Patrick [Chamusso's] solution was not just to say, "I cannot live under this system. I'm going to join a struggle to overturn this system of government." He goes way beyond that to a real solution, for all of us, which is the idea of forgiveness.

So I thought that the film was another chance to celebrate the greatness in so-called "ordinary people," but also to take some of the themes of Rabbit-Proof Fence and extend them even further. To be able to share that story with people all around the world via the platform that film gives us - I thought that would be worth devoting a couple of years of my life to. Plus, it was great to be in South Africa. What a dynamic, diverse country that has shown us the beacon in conflict resolution and solved their problems of hate, of racial divide, like no other country in the history of mankind.

In the beginning of the film, Patrick Chamusso seems content with his life. He's happier coaching soccer than attending political rallies. His sudden political awakening is a real force within the film. Was such an awakening to activism common amongst black South Africans?

Shawn Slovo: Actually, I think most black South Africans were not political. There were 25 million at that time in a land of 30 million, and most were like people all over the world who weren't particularly involved in politics, who were just trying to make the best that they could for themselves and their families in an Apartheid society. And I think that what attracted me originally to the Patrick Chamusso story was that he didn't have a history of activism. To me that's a strength of the story, that he was an apolitical man who decided to take control. And I think he's still doing that today, because he looks around the rural area where he lives and he sees how HIV and AIDS are decimating the community, and he's opening up his house to children, to orphans, and he's taking some kind of control again over the situation there.

Shawn, can you talk about your first meeting with Patrick Chamusso?

SS: My father, Joe Slovo, who was the head of special ops of the military wing of the ANC [African National Congress], he was the one who actually told me about Patrick, just after the events of the film, when of course Patrick was serving his 20-some year sentence. So I had to wait until the early 90s when Mandela and everyone were released and granted political amnesty.

At which point you actually sought him out?

SS: Yes. Joe put me in touch with him. I met him three weeks after he'd been released from Robben Island and interviewed him. And that was the basis of the film.

Going back to the first question you asked about the research of this film: I am lazy as a writer. I don't like traveling around and researching particularly. So I actually concocted a fiction based on three days of interviews with Patrick. When Phillip came on board, we did a whole new level of research to get much more to the truth of the story that actually expanded and built on the screenplay. It was Philip's intention to make it as authentic and real as possible and this actually strengthened the story. So that was a lesson to me about being lazy [laughs].

PN: Only because the real story was more fantastic than anything you could make up: the way in which he broke in to the plant, for example. You know, ingeniously going underneath a mineshaft that he had worked in and catching a conveyor belt that ran over the army of police that had surrounded the plant expecting him. It was straight out of a spy movie. Or the way that the ANC was penetrated by the security branch - which we only found out when we were researching and speaking to both sides. One of the advisors that worked with Tim - we found that he had gone to Swaziland every two weeks and paid off someone in the ANC who would give him all internal documents and then would just wait for guys like Patrick to come across the border - all of which became a part of the movie.

SS: And the plot became much richer, even though it's the same story. And not only on a plot level, but on a psychological level as well.

PN: Well, Patrick took us places. You know, we'd be traveling along in a car and Patrick would say, "Oh, let's go over there. That's the place where I met the Nick Vos character," who is a combination of two policemen who were in Patrick's life. And he took us over to that dam where the final scene takes place and showed us where he stood while Nick was fishing, and so on.

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"The real story was more fantastic than anything you could make up."
"When we said we had the Oscar-winner, they said, 'It's a go picture.'"

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Chris Wiggum
In pursuit of a glorious life in the movies, Chris Wiggum jumped on a bus and headed south from Seattle seven years ago. Perhaps by an error of professional judgment, or just common sense, he de-bussed in San Francisco and has been there ever since. His writings have appeared in very few places, but after stints at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival, ITVS and just about every other film organization in town, he at least can lay claim to several friends in "the business." On weekends, Chris can often be found sneaking a burrito into an afternoon screening.

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