To Catch a Fire

To Catch a Fire
Directed by Phillip Noyce

A look at the body of work of Australian director Phillip Noyce reveals a striking transformation in recent years. The director whose career took off with the Australian import Dead Calm, and whose name is still mainly associated with the Tom Clancy adaptations starring Harrison Ford, seems to have undergone a mid-life reassessment of values, an awakening of social consciousness that is clearly evidenced by the latest film projects he has chosen to direct. Whatever left-wing sympathies Noyce hinted at in such films as Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, he has chosen to place fully front and center in his latest projects, all of which serve to remind us of some pretty glaring accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (or perhaps, more to the point, large-scale acts of inhumanity perpetrated by large-scale groupings of men called governments). In Rabbit-Proof Fence, he turned to his native Australia and its mistreatment of the Aboriginal natives of that country. With The Quiet American, he managed to translate Graham Greene’s novel into a fresh attack of American imperialist abuse of power. In his latest project, he turns his gaze to Africa to focus attention on one of the many egregious examples of malfeasance that have burdened that continent–the apartheid in South Africa.

Based on a true story, Catch a Fire tells the story of one black man and his family, and how their lives are ruined at the hands of apartheid. The setting is 1980, and Patrick Chamusso is an immigrant from Mozambique who has found some measure of success as a foreman at an oil refinery in Secundo, South Africa. The film opens with a series of scenes that introduce Patrick and his family in the context of the black African experience and its hybrid culture – a late 20th century amalgam of Western and tribal influences. Patrick and his family may sing African native songs during the wedding of a family member, but they have driven there in a Western-made car, they dress in Western garb, and they dance to American R&B during the reception. And Patrick and his wife Precious act like any typical married couple in a manner that is recognizably contemporary. They tease each other affectionately; he gets exasperated at her bad driving and she nags him for not having the patience to teach her; and when he starts dancing with another woman at the reception, she walks by and flicks him on the head to remind him that he’s married. Later, when Precious begs Patrick to buy her a new couch for their home and he tells her they can’t afford it, the conversation could have come right out of the mouths of a couple from Akron, Ohio. Of course, the film never fails to remind us that their home is a concrete shack in a black shantytown, with the apartheid police surrounding it like a penitentiary.

It is clear from the beginning that for a black man in South Africa, Patrick has a good life – he has charm, good looks, a pretty wife who loves him, two children to care for, a good job – ample motivation for him to steer clear of the ever-rising conflicts between militant blacks banding together under the African National Congress (ANC) and the Boers in power. So it is a shock to Patrick and his wife when he is falsely accused of a terrorist act, a bombing that takes place at his plant. During the long, torture-filled interrogation that follows, headed by the intractable head of anti-terrorist security Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), we witness Patrick not only physically brutalized but psychically as well. Before it is over and Patrick is exonerated, it is too late. His life is in ruins.

Catch a Fire is being marketed as a political thriller, but at its core it’s a melodrama, and it is the underlying story of Patrick and his wife that gives the film its depth and power. Beautifully enacted with precisely drawn performances by Derek Luke and Bonnie Henna (their chemistry is so strong that their marriage feels authentic), it’s a story as old as the bond of marriage itself, about a man who loves his wife but whose charm and vitality lead him into an indiscretion that strains the marriage. And Precious is a pretty woman like so many – she loves her handsome and attentive husband, but she’s also a proud woman whose vision of her life exceeds what has been dealt to her. And because she is not a saint but an ordinary woman, she succumbs to fits of jealousy, as proud women often do. It is this weakness that allows her to become blinded by paranoia and, ultimately, to lose her ability to do what is right.

It is a powerful stroke of narrative genius how subtly and intelligently this story between Patrick and his wife becomes a metaphor of the larger conflict between blacks and whites in South Africa. The blacks are fighting for equality but the whites only see blacks with guns pointed at them, and their paranoia is blinding. When Patrick insists on his innocence even after weeks of torture, Nic Vos still only sees him as guilty. The parallels between this story and that of Patrick and Precious come together in an emotionally wrenching coda, where guilt is acknowledged, and forgiveness is given.

The film was written by Shawn Slovo, both of whose parents were famous white anti-apartheid activists. Her father was Joe Slovo, a leading member of the ANC who helped found its military wing with his friend, Nelson Mandela. Her mother was Ruth First, who was killed while in exile in Mozambique in 1982 by South African government security agents who sent her a letter bomb. (Shawn Slovo scripted her mother’s story for the screen in the 1988 film A World Apart, starring Barbara Hershey.) Knowing this makes it easier to forgive Slovo for her heavy-handed treatment of South Africa’s white ruling class. Nevertheless, the characterization of the Boers in power as almost zombie-like in their lack of humanity is unnerving. The domestic scenes that show Nic Vos and his family are downright comical in their stereotyping. Slovo tries to give her characterization of Vos some depth, but ends up turning him into a modern-day Captain Ahab, with Patrick as his big white whale. It took the casting of a left-wing sympathizer with a browbeaten face like Tim Robbins to bring some different tones to the character.

What sympathies Slovo cannot bring herself to show the whites, she has in abundance for the black South Africans. The film at times exudes such moralistic fervor that by the time we see the black militants embracing violence, even the most ardent of pacifists could be persuaded to pick up a gun and join the fight. It helps that the film never shows these black militants actually kill anybody except in self-defense. And yet the whites are obliged with several scenes of torture and oppression, and even a bloody massacre that leaves several black militant leaders dead. Slovo knows what she’s doing; her intentions are to honor the cause. Her parents would have been proud.

With this unequivocal depiction of the oppression and injustices blacks endured under apartheid, Slovo and Noyce have given us a rare history lesson in the black struggle against racism from the black perspective. For this reason, this film is one for the books. But the film resonates with historical prescience for our time as well. Through their anti-terrorist strategies, the Boers in power in South Africa managed to take an apolitical citizen and turn him into a terrorist. This cautionary tale could hold some insights for our current government, whose own anti-terrorist policies are having a similar effect. Let us hope that Noyce’s influence in Hollywood will help give this film the attention it deserves, and that his newfound activism will have some effect.

In the meantime, one can speculate on what lengths Noyce will go to next in his mission to raise our social consciousness. Word is already out that his next project is an adaptation of American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s novel about the effects of racism and the resulting civil unrest that marked the sixties in Newark, New Jersey. It will be interesting to see just how far he will go, or how far the bulwarks of our uniquely American market-driven censorship will let him go. And the struggle continues…

Beverly Berning

Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.