Patrick Chamusso didn’t set out to become a terrorist, but the times in which he lived made him into one. An oil-refinery worker in the South African town of Secunda, Chamusso was arrested in 1980 for conspiring with members of the African National Congress to bomb the Secunda plant. These were the grimmest years of the apartheid system, during which much of the rest of the world had turned its back on South Africa and United Nations–imposed oil sanctions were crippling its economy. Dissenting voices were quickly silenced by imprisonment or death. So while Chamusso was detained and tortured by Afrikaner authorities, the Secunda bombing became a rallying point for the ANC and black South Africans alike. There was just one thing: Patrick Chamusso was innocent.
Only later, upon his release, did Chamusso decide to join the ANC’s militarized wing, eventually becoming the key operative in a second, partly successful bombing at Secunda. Now, Chamusso’s story is a film, and while it has been the disposition of so many movies about modern Africa — from Richard Attenborough’s 1987 Cry Freedom to this year’s The Last King of Scotland — to tell their stories at a distance, through the eyes of naive, usually foreign and almost always white interlocutors, Catch a Fire brims with authenticity and an insider’s perspective. No matter that its director, Phillip Noyce, is a white Australian.
“I had a really big team of coaches, and I surrounded myself with them and kept them with me all the time,” says Noyce, relaxing in a Toronto hotel suite a few days after finishing postproduction work on the film in Wellington, New Zealand. Among those coaches were Naphtali Manana, another former ANC member, who did time with the real Chamusso at the infamous Robben Island prison (where Nelson Mandela was also incarcerated), and the film’s screenwriter, South African–born Shawn Slovo, whose father, Joe Slovo, was one of the highest-ranking white officers in the ANC and later a Cabinet minister in Mandela’s first post-apartheid government.
“So, how I did things was by not trying to do them myself, because I couldn’t have,” Noyce adds. “I was surrounded by people who’d been there, who are articulate and passionate and who felt an urgency to tell this story and share it, and I let them. Not only the black side of the story, but also the white side of the story.”
True to Noyce’s words, Catch a Fire comes to focus on the relationship between Chamusso (played with an appealing mix of defiance and youthful swagger by Derek Luke) and the police colonel, Nic Vos (an excellent Tim Robbins), who interrogates him after his initial arrest. It’s a decidedly complex relationship in which neither man is painted as a saint or a devil and both are shown to be flawed father figures doing what each thinks is right to make the next generation better for his children.
“The first thing to say about the Vos character is that I’ve yet to find a policeman anywhere in the world who I believed joined the force in order to do wrong,” says Noyce. “They joined because they wanted to uphold the institutions, they wanted to preserve the status quo, they wanted to serve and protect. Now, there are many paths that our protectors can take, because all power corrupts. And I did discover in South Africa that it was even more complex, because so many white South Africans considered themselves to be Africans, not Europeans, because they looked to several hundred years of forefathers who had been there.”
As for Chamusso, who today runs an orphanage for more than 80 displaced children and also served as a consultant to the film, Noyce says he found a man who was “full of regrets about so many decisions,” from his personal relationships to the lives of friends and family he inadvertently compromised in the course of his actions. “For me, that made the story more interesting and more compelling.”
Educated at the Australian National Film School, but making movies in Hollywood since the crackerjack suspense thriller Dead Calm first brought him here 17 years ago, Noyce has enjoyed something of a bifurcated career. And if Catch a Fire may seem an anomaly to those who associate Noyce with the highly successful Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, it will come as little surprise to those familiar with the more personal branch of Noyce’s career, which has time and again concerned itself with societies poised on the brink of seismic change, from the newsreel cameramen about to be displaced by television in the extraordinary Newsfront (1978) to the Vietnamese loosing themselves from the grip of French colonialism in The Quiet American (2002). Just as often, Noyce has allied himself with those people fighting for just causes in unjust times, whether Patrick Chamusso or Juanita Nielsen, the alternative-newspaper publisher whose still-unsolved disappearance rests at the heart of the scintillating Heatwave (1982).
“I found myself a few years ago at the point where I was able to branch out and stop just making films for the conveyor belt,” Noyce says of his Hollywood sojourn. “I realized it’s a rare opportunity that you get, to express yourself, because any day the sword of Damocles can drop. ‘You’re too old. You’re out of touch. Your movies don’t make money anymore.’ So while you can do it, do it!”
Though Noyce says Catch a Fire is specific to South Africa in the 1980s, it’s virtually impossible to watch the film without considering the new generation of terrorists and freedom fighters in conflicts around the globe, and the often-fine perceptual line separating the one from the other.
“It wasn’t really on my mind,” he says, “but I’m a firm believer in the value of history to tell the future, because we do repeat ourselves, and all too often we don’t look to the past for guidance. I would never claim that you could draw direct comparisons between what’s happening in the world today and this particular story, because I think it is about South Africans and their particular struggle. And I think this is a film not so much about the problem as it is about the solution. It goes well beyond resistance movements to the next stage — that’s what really attracted me to it.”
But Noyce notes that even the triumph of a free South Africa has been a bittersweet one for many South Africans.
“One might expect that in 2005, when the movie was filmed, that you would find it difficult to re-create a black township from back in 1980,” he says. “But we only had to go about 15 minutes from Victoria to come to a township that had no running water, no electricity, almost no cars, and certainly no TV aerials that would have to have been removed. You can free people from political oppression, but you can’t free them overnight from the economic repression that comes from such a well-oiled system as was apartheid. That economic apartheid is going to take generations to change. But out of all of that, the thing that I hope comes through in the film is the resilience, the positivity, the celebration at every stage of that struggle.
“That’s why the discovery of the freedom songs was a breakthrough to me,” Noyce says of the energetic inspirationals that became hymns to the anti-apartheid cause and which populate the Catch a Fire soundtrack. “Here’s a struggle that was fought as people sang. And in South Africa today, you’ll go into a township or you’ll go on a bus and you’ll hear those songs. People are singing — they’re singing through life.”
Catch a Fire opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, October 27.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.