Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Catch A Fire

Tim Robbins, Catch A Fire

With Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American and now Catch A Fire to his credit in succession, Phillip Noyce appears to be leaving the blockbuster action movies behind and moving into the realm of serious but still arguably mainstream cinema. These three are all very proficient films with interesting stories and relevant social and political messages. It is noteworthy that they are all based on historical facts.

This style of film-making is much more interesting than films like Syriana or (especially) The Constant Gardener. In those, the directors appear to make a show of promoting a worthy world view, but don’t really seem committed to the political cause they’re endorsing. For me, they felt gratuitous, the director simply cynically exploiting our interest in political conspiracies without necessarily sharing that interest. Whatever it takes to get bums on seats.

It can be a difficult balance for a director. You want to do a story that you know is going to be hard to sell. So you need a big name or two to get the studio on board. But then you’re stuck with a highly recognisable face that everyone knows is American but has to use an Afrikaaner accent.

I was unexpectedly and pleasantly surprised to find that Tim Robbins was completely believable as the South African security interrogator. His accent seemed flawless, and with his excellent acting I was able to buy-in to his character immediately. And I assumed that Derek Luke, who played the protagonist Patrick Chamusso, was African. In fact, he’s from LA and has appeared in Spartan and Antwone Fisher (in the title role).

Apartheid, like Nazism or so-called terrorism, is an easy target for condemnation. It takes little effort to totally demonise even minor participants, even though they may be ordinary people. Noyce skilfully avoids such caricatures. Using effective editing and other cinematic devices, he was able to portray that both the protagonist and the antagonist had much in common. They both had two daughters, and both loved their families and their country. But one became a torturer and one became the tortured.

Noyce’s portrayal of apartheid was very balanced. Robbin’s character Vos was a family man with a job. His family loved him, but at work he was a man to be feared. Torture is a method that has been shown to not work. Both Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo and Noyce’s Catch A Fire illustrate this by depicting false confessions that were actually made by innocents. According to Noyce at the Q&A session that proceeded the film, the confessions made by Chamusso after he joined the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) were deliberately sparse on detail and designed to appease but ultimately frustrate his interrogators.

I asked Noyce if the film was making a statement about current world events, and he acknowledged that it was. It is very relevant to the war on terror and the West’s turning to inhumane methods. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, he quoted. Patrick Chamusso was a hero, he said, not because he took up arms, but because he renounced them. The ANC had a policy of not harming innocents, but this wasn’t always followed to the letter. According to Noyce, Chamusso was unsuccessful (he was caught and jailed), because he was careful to follow this policy.

I was surprised by how much I liked this film, and found it the best of Noyce’s yet. Noyce is showing himself to be a deft master of quietly subversive films with commercial appeal, but ultimately they are socio-political commentaries with a strong humanitarian element. Catch A Fire should have wide appeal among both casual movie-goers and the more serious cinephiles.

: Phillip Noyce Rating: M Duration: 101 min Genre: drama/thriller Language: Afrikaans/Zulu/English Country: France/UK/South Africa/USA Release: 23/11/06, wide Dist: UIP Prod Co: Working Title Films Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anthony Minghella, Robyn Slovo Scr: Shawn Slovo Sound Ed: Andrew Plain Phot: Ron Fortunato Ed: Jill Bilcock Prod Des: Johnny Breedt Mus: Philip Miller Cast: Tim Robbins, Derek Luke, Bonni Henna, Mncedisi Shabangu

Official website IMDB

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