Cast: Tim Robbins, Derek Luke, Bonnie Henna, Terry Pheto
Director: Phillip Noyce
Genre: Action, Biography, Drama
Running Time: 102 minutes
Synopsis: Powerfully telling the story of a South African hero's journey to freedom, Catch a Fire is the new film from director Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Rabbit-Proof Fence). The political thriller takes place during the country's turbulent and divided times in the early 1980s, and in the new South Africa of today.
Derek Luke portrays real-life hero Patrick Chamusso. Patrick is a charming and loving husband to his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna), and a caring father to his two young daughters. He works as a foreman at the centrally located Secunda oil refinery, which is a symbol of South Africa's self-sufficiency at a time when the world was protesting the country's oppressive apartheid system. In his spare time, Patrick coaches a local boys' soccer team. Carefully toeing the hard line imposed on blacks by apartheid, Patrick is completely apolitical.
Academy Award winner Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a Colonel in the country's Police Security Branch. The shrewd and charismatic Vos strives to maintain order in volatile situations, which have become more and more frequent as the outlawed activist organisation African National Congress (ANC) rallies blacks against apartheid. Vos is also concerned for the safety of his wife and two daughters. He and his family live a world away from the Chamusso family…
…until the innocent Patrick comes under suspicion and is arrested (in June 1980) for sabotage of the Secunda oil refinery. His alibi is compromised, and Patrick is desperate to shield Precious from a past indiscretion and keep his job. But he is ill-prepared to withstand brutal interrogations by Vos' men. As Vos further insinuates himself into the lives of the Chamussos, to Patrick's shock and shame, Precious herself is jailed and tortured. Although he and Precious are soon released from custody, Patrick is stunned into action and completely reorients his sense of self and purpose. He leaves his family to join up with the ANC.
Becoming a rebel fighter and political operative, Patrick is radicalised on behalf of his people and his country. He ultimately envisions a formidable and dangerous follow-up strike against the Secunda refinery, risking his own life and future. Change must and will come, for Patrick and his family, and for South Africa itself.
Release Date: 23rd of November, 2006
A Brief History of Apartheid (1948-1991) and South Africa (1652-present)
While apartheid was only ended in South Africa 15 years ago, the roots of the system date back several centuries.
The country we know as South Africa was originally home to the San, hunter-gatherers who had migrated through the territory following game. Archaeological records of their ancestors date back 10,000 years. Subsequently, records of the habitation of the Bantu tribes go back 1,500 years. The Bantu migrated south from central Africa, bringing to their new region skills as iron-mongers, cattle ranchers, and produce farmers. By the mid-17th century, there were large tribes spread throughout South Africa, with different languages and cultures.
It was then that the country was first settled by white people, in 1652, once Dutch East India Company ships sailed to the Cape of Good Hope to create a way-station. Waves of immigrants from Holland, France, Germany, and England arrived over the next two centuries.
By the turn of the 19th century, the Cape was a British colony, a fact deeply resented by the descendants of the original Dutch settlers, the Afrikaners, who had become a distinct tribe with their own language and religion. Fiercely independent and deeply pious, they resented British efforts to end slavery. In 1834, a community of Afrikaners set out on an epic journey towards the country's interior, to free themselves from British rule. Known as the Great Trek, the journey brought the Afrikaners into conflict with black tribes resisting their advance. One of the Afrikaners' decisive battles was with the Zulu army, at a place now known as Blood River. An astonishing victory - not one Afrikaner life was lost, while Zulu fatalities numbered over 3,000 - contributed to the Afrikaners' belief that they were chosen by God to civilise what they saw as "barbarian" races.
In 1910, South Africa's four provinces merged into a national entity, placing millions of blacks under white rule. The central focus of government immediately became how to deal with what was referred to as "the native problem." The resulting Natives Land Act of 1913 reserved 87% of the land for whites, dispossessing millions of blacks of their homes and farms. Blacks' resistance to their dispossession evolved to become the driving political dynamic in the country for the next 80 years.
Afrikaner identity had long been characterised by the frontier/pioneering spirit of the Great Trekkers and their - mostly farming - descendants, who had been brutalised and oppressed by the British during the Boer Wars. By the mid-20th century, though, this identity had hardened into a conviction that their survival depended on self-reliance and isolation. It found expression in a form of nationalism that was inward-looking, defensive, and profoundly conservative. At its heart was a fear that their survival in South Africa would always be precarious, given that blacks outnumbered whites so dramatically.
Thanks to a campaign which exploited white fears of "swart gevaar," "the black menace," the right-wing Afrikaner National Party rose to power in 1948. The party's agenda consolidated and vastly extended existing racial segregation into an ideological and legal system that regulated every aspect of South African life, from birth to death, according to race. This system was known as apartheid. The goals were to shield the Afrikaner race from miscegenation; to entrench white power; and to force blacks into wage labor. As a direct result, hundreds of black communities were forcibly removed and dumped into the increasingly impoverished tribal areas. Blacks were subjected to the notorious Pass Laws, forced to carry a document that had to be produced on demand under threat of imprisonment and that allowed authorities to further curtail their freedom.
Vociferous black resistance to apartheid came to a head on March 21st, 1960 in Sharpeville, a small township south of Johannesburg. Police fired on protesters rallying against the Pass Laws, killing 69 people and wounding 180; all of the protesters were unarmed, and most shot in the back. The government instituted a state of emergency in response to the outcry that followed. The African National Congress (ANC) and other left-wing political organizations were banned. Within a couple of years, most black leaders were either in exile or in prison, including anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. The United Nations declared apartheid a crime against humanity.
A new generation became radicalised when student demonstrations in Soweto in 1976 led to more deaths. As a direct result, many youths joined the ANC military wing.
By the 1980s, South Africa was in a state of virtual civil war. The army occupied the townships. Any protest was met with maximum force, resulting in thousands of deaths. The whole country was almost completely isolated from the world. South Africa had been expelled from all international sporting bodies; its consumer goods were being boycotted; and international disinvestment and oil sanctions were destroying the economy.
With daily reports of atrocities fueling worldwide pressure on South Africa, President F.W. de Klerk bowed to the inevitable. In February 1990, he lifted the ban on the ANC and other political parties. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Exiles were finally able to return home. Apartheid was dismantled.
In 1994, South Africa's first free elections brought the ANC to power, with Nelson Mandela as President, and marked the end of Afrikaner rule in the country.
A Brief History of the ANC and the ANC Military Wing (MK)
The African National Congress (ANC) was formed by a caucus of tribal, political, and religious groups in 1912, in response to the increasingly oppressive laws of the South African government that were depriving blacks of their rights, land and freedom.
The organisation was radicalised in 1949 by its Youth League, headed by Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In June 1952, they launched the Defiance Campaign, a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience against apartheid. The government (now controlled by the right-wing Afrikaner National Party) responded with mass arrests. As a result, ANC membership swelled.
In 1961, following the Sharpeville massacre and the brutal state of emergency that followed, the ANC abandoned its policy of peaceful resistance for one of armed struggle, founding its military wing (MK) Mkhonto we Sizwe [translation, "Spear of the Nation"]. Mandela was named MK's commander-in-chief. After an MK campaign of sabotage against government installations, Mandela was arrested in 1962. Along with other ANC leaders, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Within South Africa, the ANC had been, for the moment, defeated.
But the movement was kept alive by exiles and activists who waged an international campaign to politically isolate South Africa, and an underground military campaign within the country's borders. In 1978 (following a trip to Vietnam), MK's chief of staff Joe Slovo set up Special Ops, a unit dedicated to armed propaganda. Special Ops engineered dramatic acts of sabotage, with the dual purpose of demoralising whites and enhancing the ANC's prestige among blacks.
Slovo's hand-picked elite operatives were based in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Special Ops targeted the county's government-owned oil refineries; as manufacturers of oil refined from coal, these refineries were allowing the country to survive U.N.-imposed oil sanctions and were symbols of the National Party's intransigence.
After several attempts, Special Ops member Motso "Obadi" Mokgabudi commanded an operation that succeeded in bombing several oil installations on the night of May 31st, 1980 - Republic Day. No lives were lost, but one of the targets hit was a huge refinery in Secunda, a town in the northeast. The explosions and subsequent fires - and reportage of same - were a major propaganda coup for MK, and marked the most effective act of sabotage in MK's history. In retaliation, South African security forces staged an illegal, cross-border raid against ANC members living in Matola, a suburb of Maputo. Twelve ANC members were killed, including Obadi.
MK's campaign continued, with increasing ferocity, within South Africa over the next decade. It was formally disbanded in August 1990, after the ban on the ANC was lifted. Many of the MK rank-and-file now serve in the South African National Defence Force, which encompasses the country's Army, Navy, Air Force, and Medical Service.
A Brief History of Patrick Chamusso
Patrick Chamusso was born into a rural Mozambique family in 1950. His father was a migrant laborer who worked over the border in South Africa as a miner, and as such was only allowed home once or twice a year (for Easter and/or Christmas) and was only minimally compensated. From an early age, Patrick Chamusso knew that he would have to go out and make a living for himself.
As a teenager, Patrick Chamusso followed his father to South Africa, taking odd jobs in the mines. He then worked as a house painter and street photographer. He was also a talented soccer player, playing for local leagues. By his early twenties, he was doing well enough to buy a car and a camera, unusual for a young black South African at that time.
One day in the 1970s, Patrick Chamusso was stopped and his car was searched by the police. Patrick Chamusso's camera was confiscated as being suspicious; there had been acts of ANC sabotage in the area, and Patrick was suspected of spying for the organisation. He was arrested and deported to Mozambique. His camera, and car, was never given back to him.
Patrick Chamusso got forged papers so he could return to South Africa. He settled in Secunda, a town several hours east of Johannesburg. He got a job at the oil refinery there, which was one of the largest in the world. Well-liked and a hard worker, he advanced quickly at the plant. His soccer-playing prowess also made him popular at the refinery and in the community.
On May 31st, 1980, the ANC's military wing (MK) bombed the Secunda plant, along with two other installations. Hitting these targets with no loss of life was a major strategic victory for the ANC; a propaganda coup, it demonstrated to whites that the apartheid government could be demoralised and to blacks that the ANC was capable of effectively fighting back.
Patrick Chamusso was arrested as a suspect in June 1980. Though he was completely innocent, the police suspected him of having helped the ANC gain access to the plant. South African police at that time had the power to hold people suspected of political crimes indefinitely, without access to a lawyer or family. Patrick Chamusso's torture was so harsh that when he was released, he was a changed man. After having avoided political involvement for all of his life, he now decided that he had suffered needless trauma for a reason, and so he had to do something.
Leaving his family behind, he crossed the border illegally into Mozambique and traveled to the capital, Maputo, where the ANC had its regional headquarters. There, he was initially held in a detention camp while the ANC checked out his story and made sure that he was not a South African police mole. Patrick was accepted into the organisation; he trained with and met MK commander Joe Slovo, one of the few senior white members of the ANC. Joe was running Special Ops, a military unit set up to engineer spectacular acts of armed propaganda - without casualties - within South Africa. He had been responsible for planning the first refinery attacks, and wanted to strategise a bigger strike.
Patrick Chamusso lobbied to Joe that with his inside knowledge of the Secunda refinery, he could bring the plant to a standstill and make it burn for days. Joe approved the operation, and the ANC agreed to send him back to South Africa for what would be - by Patrick Chamusso's choice - a one-man assault. He first completed further training in Angola and then returned to Maputo before traveling, under an assumed identity, by car via Swaziland back to South Africa and then into Secunda.
On the day of the operation, October 21st, 1981, Patrick Chamusso attached land mines to his body and hid himself on a conveyor belt. The belt carried coal from a neighboring mine to inside the refinery, and now would successfully transport Patrick himself as well. His carefully worked-out plan was to place one mine on a water-pump, followed by another on a reactor inside one of the main plants. The impactful first explosion would act as a warning to the thousands of workers inside the reactor, since ANC policy was that no lives were to be lost in any operations; and would make it that much harder for the authorities to fight the fire. He planned for the reactor land mine to explode 15 minutes after the water-pump one.
Patrick Chamusso left the plant as the first mine went off. The main plant emptied as planned. Police arriving on the scene guessed that there was another land mine, and found and disarmed it before it could explode.
Six days later, on October 27th, after a massive manhunt, Patrick Chamusso was caught. He was held for nine months without trial, during which time he was brutally tortured.
His trial eventually took place in Pretoria Supreme Court, in August 1982. Patrick Chamusso was found guilty on three counts of contravening the Terrorism Act (undergoing training in Mozambique and belonging to an illegal organisation; committing sabotage; and unlawfully possessing arms and explosives), and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Patrick Chamusso served nearly 10 years on Robben Island until he was amnestied and released in late 1991, along with all political prisoners.
Today, Patrick Chamusso lives in northeast South Africa with his wife Conney, whom he married after his release from prison. Patrick Chamusso and Conney have three children of their own, and have foster-parented 80 more, all of the latter orphans. Their orphanage is named Two Sisters.
About the Production
Apartheid ended 15 years ago in South Africa, but there are still heroes' stories to be told from those times that the world has not yet heard. Patrick Chamusso's life is one such story.
Catch a Fire director Phillip Noyce states, "Patrick Chamusso is a remarkable man, and an inspiration to us all. He's a man who goes beyond prejudice and beyond hatred to realise that as humans, if we ever want to be free, we have to learn to forgive."
The true story dramatised in the new film has deep roots in South Africa's history - and in the filmmakers'. For, Catch a Fire screenwriter Shawn Slovo was given the idea to write the movie over two decades ago by her late father Joe Slovo. Joe Slovo was formerly head of the military wing (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC), and later a Cabinet member in Nelson Mandela's first (post-apartheid) government.
Joe Slovo told Shawn Slovo that if she ever wanted to write a story about the ANC's armed struggle against apartheid, then she should tell the story of one of the movement's heroes, Patrick Chamusso. In 1981, Patrick Chamusso had attacked the Secunda Oil Refinery. This coal-to-oil refinery was a symbol of South Africa's self-sufficiency at a time when the much of the rest of the world was instituting economic sanctions and boycotts against the apartheid regime. It was also a symbol of the wealth and riches of South Africa, earned in part by the exploitation of cheap black labor. Joe Slovo had strategised the mission with Chamusso, who carried it out single-handedly, earning himself the codename "Hotstuff."
Patrick Chamusso was sentenced to 24 years in prison for the attack, and was still imprisoned when Shawn first heard the story. "I thought the idea of getting to tell it was pie-in-the-sky," she remembers. But within the decade, change finally came to South Africa as apartheid was dismantled and free elections were held.
In late 1991, when Patrick Chamusso was released as part of the amnesty granted to all political prisoners, Joe Slovo put Shawn Slovo in touch with him. Just two weeks after his release from prison, Shawn Slovo spent several days with Patrick Chamusso as the newly freed hero told her his story. Those conversations would form the foundation of Catch a Fire.
Shawn Slovo remembers, "I recognised in him someone who audiences all over the world could identify with. He's not a typical hero of South Africa's struggle, in that he is a man who had no political history, education, or background before joining the ANC. He is an ordinary man who loved his family, had a good job, and was passionate about football [in the U.S., "soccer"]. But when things went wrong, instead of giving in or being immobilised, he decided to take control. That, to me, is extremely heroic."
Although Shawn Slovo was extremely moved after meeting Patrick Chamusso, she points out, "I didn't feel like there was a perspective in place yet to tell the story; things had not settled." So she put her tapes away in a drawer and waited.
By the turn of the century, the world had had time to reflect on what had happened in the previous century - and particularly the previous decade - in South Africa. Shawn brought the idea for the film to Working Title, which had previously made the movie of her first feature script, the autobiographical South African story A World Apart.
Catch a Fire producer and Working Title co-chair Tim Bevan reflects, "I've always believed that Shawn Slovo's best writing comes when she writes personally. When she told us Patrick Chamusso's story, we commissioned it right away. I felt his story had a universality in its emotion and its humanity that would appeal to audiences everywhere. This is a film we're proud to have made."
Shawn Slovo's sister Robyn Slovo also came on board as a producer. The two sisters collaborated during the development phase, and Catch a Fire marked their first professional teaming. Robyn Slovo states, "I found Patrick Chamusso's story unbearably moving. It's about the bravery of an individual who feels that things are wrong for himself and his country, but it's also a story that is very connected to my father. Both Shawn Slovo and I felt we could make a contribution to the world by telling a part of the history of South Africa."
The history of South Africa is very much intertwined with that of the Slovo family. In the 1960s, the family faced imprisonment for their anti-apartheid actions, and were forced to flee their country. Joe Slovo's wife, and Shawn Slovo and Robyn Slovo's mother, Ruth First was assassinated in 1982 by the apartheid regime when she opened a letter that contained a bomb.
Robyn Slovo attended school and college in the U.K. before her first return visit to South Africa in the 1990s. "Even though I grew up in England and live and work in the U.K.," she says, "I still feel very South African."
Mirage Enterprises joined the production after an early draft of the script was circulated. Mirage partners Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack signed on to produce and executive-produce, respectively, the film. Shawn Slovo continued to refine the script, and in 2004 Mirage's Bruna Papandrea sent it to Phillip Noyce.
The director had been contemplating his next movie after the near-simultaneous release of his two politically and emotionally charged films, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, in late 2002. Chamusso's story resonated with him. Shawn Slovo's script, Phillip Noyce notes, "had all the ingredients that would bring audiences to the cinema; a love story, a war story, an adventure story - and a story very relevant to today. It's about a particular time and place, but it speaks to all of us in a much larger and inspiring context."
Bevan remarks, "Phillip Noyce is an amazing director; he's a smart filmmaker who has made both smaller art-house movies and big commercial Hollywood blockbusters. Catch a Fire required someone who had both of those skills, because in order to make it compelling to an audience it was important that we succeed with the thriller aspect."
For Phillip Noyce, the most challenging part of making Catch a Fire was "being a white Australian tackling a South African story that deals with so many events of historical significance to that country. I very quickly began immersing myself in South African culture and history.
"This story is as much about the Slovos' father and his ethos and about their mother and what she died for, as it is about Patrick Chamusso. Shawn Slovo is invested in this story so very deeply. This film, together with A World Apart, is her homage to her parents and to her country - a country that she's mostly lived apart from. I felt the burden of that, and the debt to her and her family, in working with her and Robyn Slovo."
For Robyn Slovo and Shawn Slovo, it was both gratifying and difficult to be entrusting the highly personal project to a director. But once they arrived in South Africa to work on research with Phillip Noyce, Robyn Slovo notes that "it immediately felt like this story was in was in very safe, strong, and creative hands."
The director put all his time and effort into research. He remembers, "For three or four months, I did virtually nothing else but meet people, trying to ascertain the mood in South Africa in the early '80s and trying to understand things from both a black and a white South African viewpoint." Phillip Noyce journeyed around the country with Robyn Slovo and Shawn Slovo, interviewing everyone that he could possibly meet who might have been involved in Patrick Chamusso's story. They also visited the real-life locations where the events of Catch a Fire took place, from the oil refinery at Secunda to the ANC villa in Maputo. They also retraced Patrick Chamusso's journey out of South Africa to Angola, back into South Africa again, and finally to prison on Robben Island.
Eventually, the director found what he needed and what he wanted. He reveals, "In the end, it was something rather simple that allowed me finally to have the confidence to make this movie; taking a car and driving around South Africa for about ten days. Once I could turn left and right and navigate around the country I felt as though I had my feet on the ground. Combined with all the research we'd done, I felt I could now make a film about that place and that time and maybe do it justice."
Shawn Slovo still continued to work on the screenplay, pointing out that "once Phillip Noyce came on board, we went into a whole different area of writing. Out of the research trips around the country, talking to people and visiting all of the different locations, emerged openings for different types of storytelling within the screenplay."
Phillip Noyce's first meeting with Patrick Chamusso had a profound effect on the director, who then asked Shawn Slovo to put even more of the true events back into the story. Shawn Slovo explains, "I had fictionalised parts of the story, because however good a story is, and however true to life it is, it doesn't always make for a movie. But when Phillip Noyce met Patrick Chamusso for hours and hours, he responded immediately with 'Well if this happened, why isn't it in the script?'"
Phillip Noyce adds, "I wanted to sit Patrick Chamusso down and intensively debrief him. I wanted to get him to tell me the story of his life as he remembered it, from birth right through to the present day. For about two days, he just spoke into a camera and a microphone, going over it all.
"Why had Patrick Chamussfelt that he had to leave a relatively comfortable life, cross the border to Mozambique, and become an ANC soldier? Why did he feel that he had to take up arms and fight back against the apartheid regime? What was it like training to be a soldier in Angola? How did he break into the Secunda refinery? What happened to him when he was imprisoned on Robben Island? These were details I had to know."
He concludes, "Catch a Fire is ultimately a story about the miracle of South Africa - and Patrick Chamusso is an example of that miracle."
For the part of Patrick Chamusso, the filmmakers conducted a worldwide search, interviewing actors from all over the world. Finally, six actors tested over three days in Los Angeles. At the close of testing it was clear that Derek Luke was the best actor to play the real-life hero.
Phillip Noyce comments, "I found in Derek Luke a man who brings not only emotion to his portrayal of Patrick Chamusso, revealing the inner core of his humanity, but also an actor who brings a deep dignity to the role. That was so important for our movie."
"I want people in theaters to cheer for Patrick Chamusso, because that is what I did when I read the script," states Derek Luke. "This man lives an ordinary life; he's made mistakes, and he's trying to get on with it. When he comes up against adversity, his hand is forced; as a man, when you can't defend your family you feel vulnerable. Patrick Chamusso found the strength to do something."
To help the African-American actor become the South African hero he would be playing, Phillip Noyce brought Luke to South Africa, six weeks prior to the start of shooting. Accordingly, Derek Luke immediately ventured north of Johannesburg, near the Kruger National Park, to meet with Patrick Chamusso. Today, Patrick Chamusso lives in a valley region with his wife and the 80 orphans that they have adopted and now care for.
Phillip Noyce was also on hand, and reports that "it was marvelous to see the two of them together! Here was Patrick Chamusso trying to imprint himself upon the eager American actor, and Derek Luke trying to draw out the essence of the real man."
Derek Luke had played a real person before, in his notable film debut Antwone Fisher. He admits, "It's a big responsibility, because you want to honor the person you are portraying. When I met Patrick Chamusso, it made the story feel more real. What affected me the most was his power to forgive, and to release his past.
"Working with Phillip Noyce was a blessing because he's so detail-oriented, and Patrick Chamusso's story had become really engraved in his heart. Phillip Noyce also has concern for his actors, and for the technical part of our craft."
Phillip Noyce says, "I don't think Derek Luke truly understood what it was like to be black in South Africa during the 1980s until I took him to Cape Town, to Robben Island. This place was infamous; it was where Mandela was incarcerated for over two decades, and where Patrick Chamusso spent ten years as a political prisoner of the apartheid regime. Derek Luke went to the isolation cells where the ANC leaders had been imprisoned, and then down the corridor to one cell in particular - a little cubicle where Mandela had spent so many years. Derek Luke spent a long time in there, and he lay down in the space where Mandela had slept.
"In that moment, I believe he made the emotional connection to being a black South African and took on the burden and the understanding of the thousands of political prisoners who had been in that space and in that place. He also realised the wisdom of a man like Nelson Mandela, who in that cubicle had partly hatched the miracle that is South Africa today.
Derek Luke's preparation continued with weeks of "boot camp." At 7:00 A.M. daily, he would undergo two hours of voice coaching with Fiona Ramsey, who had earlier helped Don Cheadle to master an authentic African accent for Hotel Rwanda. Later in the morning, in the soccer fields of Soweto, Luke trained as a soccer player and coach. Phillip Noyce reveals, "We've all seen Derek Luke starring in sports-related movies, but he started Catch a Fire with absolutely no knowledge of soccer. Now, though, he can really play.
"By the time filming began, Derek Luke's months of preparation had brought him to an understanding of the core of the man he was playing, and of the reasons why Patrick Chamusso felt he had to fight back."
To play opposite Derek Luke as Colonel Nic Vos, Phillip Noyce cast Academy Award winner Tim Robbins, "not only because he is a great performer, but also because, to put it bluntly, he looks like a white South African; tall, with blond features. That said, I also felt that Tim Robbins was the actor who would be able to go beyond the stereotypical white South African racist villain that we've sometimes seen on the screen; Tim conveys how any one of us could behave in exactly the same way that Nic Vos does, and perhaps even identify with him."
Shawn Slovo clarifies, "I certainly didn't want to write in a stereotypical corrupt apartheid police element. Nic Vos is an intelligent man who truly believes that if the ANC takes power, his country will be destroyed. He's fighting to protect what he feels is precious in his life; family, and law and order. At the same time, he is smart enough to sense that he's on the losing side. So that layered in a beautiful contradiction at the core of his character for Tim Robbins to work with."
Robyn Slovo adds, "South African history is not a one-sided story. South Africa was and is a very complicated place; we are trying to tell all sides of the story, including that of the white South African policeman."
Tim Robbins notes, "Through the relationship between these two men - a South African and an Afrikaner - you see the wider picture of the country at that time, and understand both sides. This is a moving story about what it's like to have your life fundamentally changed on you, and to struggle for what you believe in.
"I loved Shawn Slovo's script; Nic Vos is a complex character, rather than a classic baddie. Phillip Noyce is a real artist, and is a director whose films I've been a fan of for a while. Catch a Fire is a story about apartheid in 1980, but it's relevant to the world right now."
Like Derek Luke, Tim Robbins did an extensive amount of research and undertook weeks of preparation on his character and accent, as well as rehearsals opposite Derek Luke. He adds, "Part of my approach was to understand the apartheid era, better because I had my own preconceptions. Once I started spending some time in South Africa, I realised it was more complex than I originally thought - and still not justifiable.
"Your job as an actor is to be neutral and to find how to play this person. You have to accept that they believe what they believe for legitimate reasons; the fact that you might not agree with them is irrelevant. Then you have to find the process by which they came to their beliefs, and find the humanity in them."
Phillip Noyce reports, "Tim Robbins is a stickler for detail and authenticity. He also always wanted to go deeper and bring out the humanity in the man; he really needed to get a handle on the man's motives, to discover how a man like Nic Vos can take such strong actions against the enemies of the country that he so loves."
Tim Robbins elaborates, "I looked at films and read reports from the time; there was an intense fear that South Africa would fall to Communist influence. Policemen like Nic Vos committed to fight something that they believed would destroy their country and their way of life. That was patriotic, but the problem lay in their methods."
To further help the actor prepare, Robyn Slovo found a real-life Security Branch policeman from the 1980s, Hentie Botha. Botha was on the real-life level of, and had been through many of the same experiences as, Tim Robbins' character; he was a family man who dedicated his life to preserving the status quo. Botha later also acted as an on-set advisor, advising Tim Robbins, costume designer Reza Levy, and the crew how a 1980s South African policeman behaved and dressed.
Tim Robbins spent many days talking with Botha, and the two of them went to Vlakplaas, the infamous interrogation center used by the Security Branch to coerce black South Africans into turning traitor (Askaris). The blacks would either leave there as traitors who would work undercover for the apartheid regime, or they would leave there dead. "Tim had to try and understand this man who admitted that torture was regularly used as a weapon against opponents," says Phillip Noyce.
Tim Robbins remarks, "I had my own feelings about everything, but they weren't important; I was a visitor, and someone who had to understand both sides.
"To this day, I don't understand how we can think that torture can actually elicit information. It doesn't; it gets you what you want to hear, in that people will say anything for the pain to stop."
Robyn Slovo remembers, "My mother was murdered by a parcel bomb sent by men with the same beliefs as the Security Branch characters portrayed in Catch a Fire. Part of the research meant meeting with a lot of these people and having them on the set. A lot of my childhood memories are of the house being raided and my parents being arrested. These men were the enemy. But one thing I have learned in talking to them is that they believed in the cause and the struggle that they were involved in. I feel a lot of personal pain and sorrow about that, yet these people are still a part of South Africa."
Phillip Noyce reflects, "The Slovo name opened many doors for us in getting this film made. If we had a problem with a location or with the army, I only had to make one call, and that was to Robyn Slovo; whomever she then called, the answer was always 'yes.' This is because of the love and esteem that all South Africans, black and white, hold so strongly for the Slovo name.
"Robyn Slovo's coming to terms with her own country's experiences rubbed off on me, the Australian outsider who was trying to catch up with so much. Her involvement proved invaluable in the retelling of the story because of what she brought to it; her own heart, her own emotions, and her own emotional attachment to South Africa and its history."
In pre-production, Patrick Chamusso not only advised the filmmakers and cast but also came down to Johannesburg to meet the crew. He advised the art department on props, décor, and equipment - from the kind of car he drove to the house that he lived in.
As an outsider telling this story, Phillip Noyce actively sought the counsel of a wide range of South African experts. For recreating the scenes set inside the ANC compound in Mozambique, and then in the ANC training camp in Angola, the filmmakers enlisted David Mbatha whose ANC code name was "Four o'clock." They also brought on another ANC member, Napthali M Manana, and both of them became crucial advisers for the director and crew.
Napthali Manana had joined the ANC as a freedom fighter when he was just 18 years old, training in Angola and then going back clandestinely into South Africa before being captured and sent to imprisonment on Robben Island. His experience so much echoed Patrick Chamusso's experiences that Derek Luke spent many days talking with Napthali Manana. They discussed his motivations for leaving the country; what it was like to be incarcerated and interrogated; and what it was like to spend so many years behind bars, so close and yet so far from the South Africa that he loved and had dedicated his life to serving.
Napthali Mbatha was not only a member of the ANC's military, but also an expert on the "freedom songs," sung by black South Africans and opponents of apartheid to express their anger, and their determination to oppose the regime. The songs were also sung by exiled South Africans who dreamt of returning home and bringing democracy to their country.
Phillip Noyce says, "David was a tower of strength and passion. As one who was there, he so passionately wanted to recreate those times when music mattered to the struggle." During filming of any sequences involving music, whether funerals or celebrations of prisoners being released from Robben Island, hundreds of people on the set appeared to have willed themselves back in time, accessing the passion and intensity that was so much a