There’s a scene about halfway through Catch a Fire during which freedom fighters—men and women, each boasting such nicknames as “Pete My Baby” and “Hot Stuff”—are being trained at an African National Congress safe house in Mozambique. Their ranks consist of South Africans who’ve been politicized by cruel life under apartheid rule, where, at any moment, they can be snatched from their homes and beaten for crimes they’re only suspected of having committed. In Mozambique, these regular folks become reluctant soldiers. “Are you ready to die?” barks their commander. He repeats the question, over and over. In unison, they all finally and forcefully shout, “Yes!”
Director Phillip Noyce initially considered removing the scene. He fretted that perhaps it would be misinterpreted in “our current context,” by which he means he was worried that audiences would think he was trying to compare South Africans brutalized by apartheid with suicide bombers martyring themselves in the name of religious fundamentalism. The South Africans did not want to die—they didn’t strap bombs to themselves and walk into crowded marketplaces—but were prepared to. And so the scene was left in.
Yet no matter its intention, Catch a Fire can’t help but be viewed as a metaphor. A true story about the wrongful imprisonment and prolonged beatings that led to the radicalization of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) in South Africa, it also feels at home in the company of The War Within and Paradise Now, two films that asked the audience not to empathize with terrorists, but to understand a little of what drives them to suicide.
When first we see him, Chamusso is a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery. He has a wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), and two kids—and, a few miles away, a mistress with whom he has another child. He’s lived his whole life keeping his mouth shut and his head down. He forces his mother-in-law to turn down ANC radio broadcasts; he defers to white police officers, referring to them as “boss”; he reprimands his own people for using whites-only facilities, if only to keep the authorities off his own back.
But when the Secunda plant is partially destroyed, Patrick’s arrested, detained, and severely beaten by thugs who work for Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a fictional representation of two officers who nearly killed Chamusso during his nine months in prison. Vos is more monster than man, though Noyce and screenwriter Shawn Slovo (whose parents were two of South Africa’s most beloved anti-apartheid activists) try to keep him from slipping into gross caricature. We’re meant to see him as a man merely doing his duty and protecting his family.
In the end, Catch a Fire plays like some weird hybrid on the crazy-quilt filmography of Phillip Noyce, which includes small productions made in his native Australia and the Sharon Stone sexcapade Sliver. What it’s definitely not is the standard-issue movie about apartheid; there’s no white protagonist, no pale-faced hero riding in on his high horse to save the oppressed black man. It’s the story of Patrick Chamusso, who intended no harm till harm was done to him. Fact is, he could be just about anyone anywhere— South Africa, the Middle East, right next door.