Struggle story succeeds

2008-10-02 08:05

Scriptwriter Shawn Slovo got the original idea for this film from her father, Joe. He knew Patrick Chamusso, the MK operative whose story it is, and suggested his life would make a good subject, telling a South African story that spans the struggle and life post-1994.

The result is pretty good. Chamusso's life has enough incident and drama to make Hollywood-style dressing-up in fiction and glitz redundant, and director Philip Noyce (The Quiet American; Rabbit Proof Fence) has the ability to let a story tell itself. Both Tim Robbins and Derek Luke make a more than respectable attempt at sounding South African, although it does seem a pity that the role of Chamusso at least could not have been taken by a local actor. However, the demands of the finance moguls make it almost inevitable that box office names and faces have to be used to get stories told. And compared with some recent would-be South Africans, Luke and Robbins are credible, and there are plenty of locals on screen with them, most notably Bonnie Henna as Chamusso's wife.

Chamusso came to SA from Mozambique as a young man and worked on the mines before ending up in the refinery at Secunda. In 1980, when MK first attacked Secunda, Chamusso was one of the last people to leave the plant before the explosion and was arrested on suspicion of having guided the saboteurs. At the time he was apolitical, a man who wanted the best for his family and spent his spare time coaching a township soccer team. He was tortured, beaten and abused, but never charged.

That experience changed his life; he left South Africa for Maputo and military training with MK, and then volunteered to return to Secunda for a second sabotage attempt. The first, small explosion was successful - it was intended to ensure that all workers were clear of the plant before the second went off. But the police suspected there would be more to come and found the mine before it could explode. After an extensive manhunt Chamusso was caught, held for nine months before being tried and sentenced to 24 years on Robben Island. He served ten years before the 1994 amnesty saw him released.

The film tries hard to avoid the usual cliches, to the point of being surprisingly low key. And from time to time, there is a sense that you are watching a “worthy” project, particularly at the end when the film moves into documentary mode, showing Luke meeting the real Chamusso.

But these are minor points in a generally satisfying film. Both Luke and Robbins, as Colonel Vos of the Special Branch, are given space to develop their characters. Vos is not shown just as a brutal thug, but as a man who believes in what he is doing, even though he knows his side must lose. It makes for a convincingly chilling portrayal. Once Chamusso has gone to Maputo, the action speeds up, and life in MK, with its constant danger of attack from SA government forces and the presence of spies, is powerfully created.

Overall, Catch a Fire works. And if its message of putting the past behind you and getting on with the problems of the present seems too easy, it is still a valid one. The real Patrick Chamusso is one of the people who ensures that this is so.


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