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The Man Behind Catch a Fire

Patrick Chamusso's life inspired the apartheid struggle movie.

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire tells the true-life story of Patrick Chamusso, a little known hero of the South African liberation struggle. Set in the violent final decade of apartheid, the film examines Chamusso’s radicalization. Working at the country’s largest oil refinery, Chamusso climbed to the rank of foreman by staying out of politics and appeasing his racist supervisors. When the African National Congress, then an outlawed political organization fighting to end apartheid, bombs the refinery, Chamusso is falsely implicated and held without charge.

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Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a morally conflicted yet ruthless colonel who oversees Chamusso’s interrogation. The Janus-faced Vos pretends to befriend Chamusso one minute while ordering his torture the next. In the film’s most heart-wrenching scene, Vos watches through one-way glass as Chamusso is placed in a room where his wife waits gagged and ruffed-up. Chamusso breaks down, offering to confess to anything. As Chamusso desperately admits to the wrong details of the crime, Vos’ conscience is shaken enough to let him go. Once free, Chamusso joins an armed resistance in Mozambique. He returns for another encounter with Vos, this time as the mastermind of an even more ambitious attack on the oil refinery where he used to work.

Catch a Fire—written by Shawn Slovo, daughter of ANC leader Joe Slovo—concludes by trying to emphasize the importance of forgiveness rather then revenge, echoing the country’s transition to post-apartheid democracy. However, the film’s pacing dulls its message, treating Chamusso’s struggle with reconciliation far too abruptly. Chamusso’s story is equally interesting at the point where the film leaves off. After ten years incarcerated on Robben Island (South Africa’s Alcatraz for political prisoners), Chamusso found new purpose by building a rural orphanage. We talked with him about having his life-story made into a film and his belief in the power of forgiveness. When did you first learn that a movie was going to be made about your life?

Patrick Chamusso: I learned when I was released from Robben Island. Joe Slovo told me that his daughter was to write something about me. He did not say that it would be a movie. Even she did not tell me that she was going to make a movie. He arranged for me to meet his daughter, Shawn Slovo, and I spent three days with her. She wrote everything about me and told me that she would get in contact with me, but she disappeared for ten years. I didn’t think that a movie or a documentary was going to be made. Her father also died in 1995, so all my hopes were gone. Then on the eleventh year, she phoned me and said, “I found a director and an actor.” I said, “For what?” She said, “For your story. We are going to make a movie about your story.” I said, “No man, get away.” Movies are made for famous people but not for an ordinary man like me. We live here on a farm and no one had ever heard of a movie being made here. Movies are made in town but not here. Was it hard for you to watch a movie about your life?

PC: It was very hard actually. It is still very painful even now. I only watch the movie from the beginning until the wedding, and then when I see the capture, I can’t watch it anymore. I don’t enjoy watching it. Even during the filming, when I used to go to the set, it was painful for me to watch the places I went through: the torture, the capture, the part when I meet my wife in prison. When the real people who tortured you took part in the hearings held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did you attend?

PC: No, I wasn’t there. I didn’t want to listen to it. As I said, even to watch this movie or go to the places where I was tortured was not easy. I didn’t want to attend the proceedings, but whatever position our leaders have taken binds me because we are a collective. They were given amnesty, which was quite a good thing in South Africa. We say that we have forgiven them and they can stay. Even now, they are still in South Africa.

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