Film Reviews


By • Oct 27th, 2006 •

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Focus Features / Working Title Films / PG-13 / 101 minutes

Attempts to explain anti-Apartheid terrorism by a reluctant true-life hero and conflicted torturer.

In two weeks I leave for my fourth – and certainly not last – visit to the Africa. I will tour Botswana, Zimbabwe (the U.S. State Department Travel Warning, issued a year ago, is still in effect), Namibia (birthplace of Shilol Jolie-Pitt), and South Africa. I will be able to assess the dire situation in Zimbabwe and South Africa for myself.

CATCH A FIRE, based on a real hero and true circumstances that happened in 1980, confused me. Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery plant. In his community, he is lucky. He has a responsible job, a wife, 2 small girls, supports his mother, and coaches soccer. But there is unrest in South Africa.

Due to the unjust stranglehold of state-sponsored Apartheid, the only means of change is through guerrilla warfare and acts of terrorism. The white-owned refinery, which employs black people, is being sabotaged. Bombs are going off. After there is an explosion at the plant, Chamusso and many others are arrested.

Chamusso is innocent of any wrong-doing but his alibi doesn’t hold up. He has lied to Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), the anti-terrorism official working for the company. It is Vos’ job to stop the attacks on the company’s property. His tactics are brutal and there is torture. But if Chamusso had just admitted he was with his mistress and their young son, he would have been let go. Visited by Vios, Chamusso’s mistress doesn’t say anything to save her man.

Vos and his goons promptly arrest Chamusso’s wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna). Entire families of suspects are rounded up and tortured. Some die.

Vos reluctantly lets Chamusso and his wife go, but Chamusso decides to leave his wife, girlfriend, and three children and join the African National Congress. Precious is forced to move to a hut and get a job. The ANC wants to rid South Africa of Apartheid and give foreign ownership of land and white-developed industry to its native people.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, the ANC is adamant: No civilian casualties.

According to the research I did online, as things stand today – November 2006 – in South Africa,“the government may broaden land seizures in order to boost black land ownership, but denied that it was considering any Zimbabwe-style land grabs (called the ‘Zimbabwean model’). Zimbabwe’s land reform has involved the seizure of property from thousands of white commercial farmers, starting in 2000.”

According to another recent Reuters article, “Zimbabwe’s political troubles have led to its isolation from the West and triggered a bruising economic crisis, highlighted by inflation of over 1,000 percent and a crippling foreign exchange shortage. Zimbabwe’s agricultural output has been hit by years of drought and the flight of scores of the most productive white commercial farmers, many of whose land was violently seized by the government to give to blacks.”

Chamusso’s unfair treatment radicalizes him. He trains at an ANC guerrilla camp. He is being watched by Vos’ men. His knowledge of the refinery places him in a perfect position to organize and then carry out another terrorist assault on the plant.

Chamusso’s actions dramatized the plight of South Africans oppressed by white foreigners and the culture of Apartheid. His story, and the fiercely sincere portrayal by Luke, appears romanticized and muddled. Why didn’t Chamusso just tell the truth immediately? The damage done to the refinery certainly required investigation.

Chamusso is considered a hero in South Africa and his story influenced the end of Apartheid. The real Chamusso appears at the end of the film and, indeed, he comes across immediately is a charismatic, kind man. I liked him.

Since director Phillip Noyce got Tim Robbins (doing a very nice accent) to co-star, and apparently Robbins did not want to add another really nasty sadist to his resume, Vos is shown as a family man who even takes Chamusso from his dank cell to enjoy a family dinner in the country. He sings two songs! He loves his wife and children and is very concerned about their welfare in the volatile political climate in South Africa. Vos has morals and is clearly troubled over his investigative techniques. He even tries to redeem himself by releasing Chamusso and his wife.

However, isn’t it odd that the real Chamusso calls Vos – on camera – “a monster.”

That monster was in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.

Victoria received some emails about this review. Two are reprinted below:

Dear Madame,

I read your review and would like to correct a couple of points.

The ANC never pursued a policy of no civilian casualties. They blew up
restaurants, office buildings, a school bus, planted land mines on
roads etc. There were actually very few attacks on military targets.
Thisawkward bit of history has been changed in the film because of
peoples’ sensitivity to terrorism after 911.

Secondly, I find your reference to me as a White foreigner offensive
in the extreme. My family has been in South Africa for over 400 years.
If I am a foreigner then so is every American, Canadian, Australian,
Jew, Spanish South American and anyone whose parents did not
genetically arise from the place they now inhabit.

When my ancestors, the Boers, founded South Africa it was mostly
uninhabited. Through hundreds of years of toil they created the
wealthiest country in Africa. When the British tried to seize it from
us we were the first people in history to endure concentration camps
in the fight for our country and our people.

The film also does nit mention how many tens of thousands and blacks
were “necklaced” by the ANC in order to promote their Communist

I hope that your trip to Africa shows you some of the realities of

Sincerely, S

P.S. Please be extremely cautious when visiting South Africa. Always
stay in a group and be careful of what areas you go to. SA has the
highest murder, rape and AIDSrates in the world.

Dear Ms. Alexander,

I enjoyed your review of this film, but I must correct one crucial

I am a white South African who lived through the peak years of the
ANC’s ‘struggle’. So I was flabbergasted when I came across the
following line:

‘Unlike Al-Qaeda, the ANC is adamant: No civilian casualties.’

Lies! This is ABSOLUTELY untrue. During the 1980’s the ANC waged a
relentless bombing campaign against CIVILIAN targets – bars,
restaurants, shopping malls, bus stops, etc. The most common technique
was to leave a Russian-made limpet mine in a trash can with a timer
fuse. I had friends who lost friendsin the bombing ofa bar named
‘Magoo’s’ on the Durban beachfront. I myself lost a distant relative
when the Sanlam Shopping Center in Amanzimtoti was bombed.Do not
believe the lies. Like any terrorist organization, the ANC favored
soft civiliantargets to military or strategic ones. Furthermore, I
should add thatmany of the ANC’s victims were black people! Just like
today’s insurgents in Iraq, the ANC’s purpose was to make the country
ungovernable by spreading fear indiscriminately among all population

I have not yet seen the film so perhaps I am judging the film’s
producers prematurely. I HOPE they did not portray the past as you
have described. If they did, they have done a great dishonor to the
many innocent victims of the ANC -both black and white…

Sincerely, GJ

Director: Phillip Noyce
Screenwriter: Shawn Slovo
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anthony Minghella, Robyn Slovo
Executive producers: Sydney Pollack, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Directors of photography: Ron Fortunato, Garry Phillips
Production designer: Johnny Breedt
Costume designer: Reza Levy
Music: Philip Miller
Editor: Jill Bilcock

Nic Vos: Tim Robbins
Patrick Chamusso: Derek Luke
Precious: Bonnie Henna

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