Catch a Fire

dir: Phillip Noyce
[img_assist|nid=866|title=We both have our serious faces on. After all, we are expecting Oscars.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450]
There were a number of reasons to be dubious about this flick. It’s a film set in South Africa in the 80s, but the title of the film is a Bob Marley album title, the music in the trailer is all Marley and the Wailers, the two most prominent roles in the film are played by Americans (Derek Luke and Tim Robbins) and the theme seemed to be how torture by the nasty state compels otherwise docile serfs into becoming terrorists.

In other words, it looked like a crapfest drowning in commercial clichés. Like Hotel Rwanda from a few years ago, I had to wonder how it was possible to make films about places in Africa where you don’t actually want Africans or Afrikaans playing any of the lead roles.

But then again, this is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has made a remarkable career for himself as both a hack of extraordinary hackiness (The Saint, Sliver, Clear and Present Danger) and a socially conscious director of extraordinary deftness (Newsfront, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American). It’s hard to understand how he balances the two aspects out, but I’m sure it’s probably to do with juggling his practical need for securing funding and his higher need to tell a meaningful story every now and then.

I needn’t have been worried about Catch a Fire. It tells a compelling (and loosely based ‘true’) story about a man, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), who’d had enough. Just flat out had enough. In the 1980s of South Africa, which look a lot like 1970s Harlem, Patrick goes about his daily grind completely apolitically, to the point where his own family and friends think he’s a bit of an ‘Uncle Tom’. He stops his mother from listening to the illegal radio broadcasts yearning for freedom, because he doesn’t want to get in trouble.

All he wants to do is work at his job, look after his wife Precious (Bonnie Mbuli) and daughters, and occasionally sleep around. The rest of South Africa may be seething under the strictures of white rule, but he’s not interested.

When there is an explosion at the plant where he works, the Afrikaner police, in the form of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), are convinced he had something to do with it, and are determined to extract a confession by using all sorts of torture techniques now quite popular in certain prisons.

Vos is, despite the ease with which he can live with the idea of torturing another person, not that bad a guy. Seriously, he’s well played by Robbins, for whom the temptation to overact is generally too great to resist. Here he makes what would seem to be a naturally despicable character multi-dimensional.

He engages with Patrick on a personal level, letting him know that he thinks the days of apartheid are numbered, but by the same token he believes he is the thin white line standing between the black majority and the complete extermination of the Afrikaans minority.

He’s got a point. Such a small minority, having initiated the policy of apartheid to prevent the evil darkies from acquiring enough power to usurp their stranglehold on the country, would have to have a paranoid set of state apparatus in place to keep the black man down. Fearful, divided and terrified of the knock on the door at 4am, they really thought this could work indefinitely.

Well, they were wrong. Patrick goes from being a happy camper to becoming an angry young man, utterly committed to the idea of ending white rule. By Any Means Necessary. So he becomes a terrorist / freedom fighter / revolutionary / ticket inspector with the dreaded ANC, of whom Nelson Mandela was one of their more popular members. Joe Slovo, one of the white members of the ANC is represented here, which makes sense since his children worked on the script, but they respectfully keep him in the background so as to not overshadow Patrick’s story.

The rest of the film follows the repercussions of everyone’s actions, both politically and personally. They all pay hefty prices, and so they should, regardless of the right or the wrong of it. It leads to an ending more surprising for what it leaves out rather than everything it includes, when you consider the forces of history at play here.

Whatever it sounds like the film is endorsing, whether it is the oppression of majorities by minorities, or that blowing shit up is cool or not, or strange accents, the film essentially is making three points: torturing people is counter-productive, blowing shit up doesn’t achieve anything and everyone wants to look after their own.

In the end, people make sacrifices for their families, either that or they end up sacrificing their families to their ideals. Vos genuinely believes he is protecting his family from harm in his work. Even with experience and handy rationalisations on his side, he still looks haunted the more the film progresses. Patrick believes abandoning his family for training with the ANC in Mozambique will ultimately help them all in the long run. They’re both right, and, like all studies in ambiguity, they’re both utterly wrong.

It is not a particularly complex or ambitious film, since it tries to stick to the ‘true’ story fairly closely, but the makers and actors do a decent job of making that simple story fairly engaging. It’s hard not to sympathise with both Patrick and what fate brings his way, but also it’s hard not to sympathise with the people around him who make some awful decisions based on their own agendas.

It doesn’t look like additional sets had to be constructed for many of the township scenes, which means many places abound in the same level of poverty thirty year’s later. It’s an even bigger indictment of contemporary South Africa, of the nascent free society hinted at the end of the movie, that so little progress from those days has been made.

This isn’t the definitive film about the struggle for freedom in South Africa, but it’ll do for now. It may not make you rush and decide to stand up to The Man, but maybe it will jar people out of their complacency a bit when they fail to bat so much as an eyelid when they hear about alleged this or thats disappearing into government custody to protect us from all the nasties out there. To be heard from, you know, whenever.

I very much doubt a few Bob Marley songs and some explosions are enough to do that, but it’s still an enjoyable movie.

7 times an accent-fest like this coupled with Serious Stories of Oppression screams ‘Oscarbait’ out of 10

“What do you think your children say about you?” – Catch a Fire.