Running Time: 101 minutes.
Rated: Rated M.
Only a few Australian directors, whose names are synonymous with the Australian film revival of the 1970s, are still making films that matter. Phillip Noyce is one of them. His 2002 films Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American drew audiences in Australia and around the world not just because he is a master storyteller. They are significant because they shed light on our own times by revisiting the past. This is the achievement too of his latest film Catch A Fire, which is an exhilarating blend of historical facts, contemporary relevance, and great artistry.
Catch a Fire is scripted by Shawn Slovo whose family was involved from the 1960s onwards in the momentous struggle to overthrow apartheid in South Africa. Her father was Joe Slovo, the head of the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), who later became a Cabinet member in Nelson Mandela's first post-apartheid government. Her mother, Ruth First, was killed by a letter bomb in 1982.
Slovo's first screenplay was the award-winning A World Apart, which was an autobiographical account of growing up in white suburban Johannesburg as the marginalised daughter of a mother who is a political activist (played by Barbara Hershey). In Catch a Fire, the struggle against apartheid is told through the story of real-life ANC hero Patrick Chamusso, an apolitical man radicalised by the vicious excesses of the apartheid state whose power to forgive has become emblematic of the new South Africa.
Set in 1980, Catch a Fire begins with the Mozambique-born Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) attending a colourful wedding in the countryside with his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna), their two young daughters, and Patrick's mother, Dorothy (Nomhle Nkonyeni). The aspiring Patrick works as a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery east of Johannesburg, which has been targeted by a terrorist bomb, and on the way home from the wedding they are stopped in their car by police, who brutally search Patrick before sending him on his way, shaken.
When the refinery is sabotaged a second time, Patrick who is innocent and not involved in politics (he even prevents his own mother from listening to banned ANC broadcasts in his home) comes under suspicion. This time his alibi is compromised, and he and his friend Zuko September (Mncedisi Shabangu) are taken in by security police for questioning.
It is at the interrogation centre, after days of beatings and torture (which includes 'water-boarding', the controversial interrogation technique sanctioned by the Bush administration), that Patrick meets Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), who is a Colonel in the Police Security Branch. Vos believes in the rightness of ruthless measures to keep his and other white families safe. Unsure of how to make Patrick confess to his involvement in the bombing, he insinuates himself into the lives of Patrick and his family, in the course of which Precious is jailed and interrogated.
For Patrick, this is the turning point. Stunned into action he joins the military wing of the ANC, where known as 'Hot Stuff', and under the leadership of Joe Slovo (Malcolm Purkey), he masterminds a second strike against the Secunda refinery.
Catch a Fire is gripping and powerful. The story flows like a thriller, and Noyce's naturalistic style is enhanced by his use of varying film stock to convey emotional states, and shifting points of view. Philip Miller's soundtrack of rousing South African freedom songs is exhilarating, while the acting is superb, especially Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) as Patrick, Tim Robbins who brings complexity and even understanding to Vos, and Bonnie Henna as Precious, whose moving portrait of a vivacious woman reduced to grief and smouldering rage is accomplished almost without words.
Best of all, Catch a Fire causes us to think as well as feel. How does one define a terrorist? Perhaps the definition is relative and depends upon one's point of view. What is morally permissible in war? Do the Geneva Conventions apply in a 'war against terror', or should they be viewed as 'quaint', as argued by the US recently? Most importantly, Catch a Fire entertains and inspires by showing the possibility of overcoming hatred, and building a just society on reconciliation and forgiveness.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.