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.home
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 realize that as humans, if we ever want to be free, we have to learn to forgive."
The true story dramatized 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 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 told Shawn 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 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 had strategized the mission with Chamusso, who carried it out single-handedly, earning himself the codename "Hotstuff."
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 Chamusso was released as part of the amnesty granted to all political prisoners, Joe put Shawn in touch with him. Just two weeks after his release from prison, Shawn spent several days with Chamusso as the newly freed hero told her his story. Those conversations would form the foundation of Catch a Fire.
Shawn remembers, "I recognized 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 immobilized, he decided to take control. That, to me, is extremely heroic."
Although Shawn was extremely moved after meeting 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's best writing comes when she writes personally. When she told us 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'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 states, "I found 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 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's wife, and Shawn and Robyn's mother, Ruth First was assassinated in 1982 by the apartheid regime when she opened a letter that contained a bomb.
Robyn 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 continued to refine the script, and in 2004 Mirage's Bruna Papandrea sent it to Phillip Noyce.
Phillip Noyce 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's script, 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 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 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 Chamusso. Shawn 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."
For Robyn and Shawn, 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 Noyce, Robyn 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." Noyce journeyed around the country with Robyn and Shawn, interviewing everyone that he could possibly meet who might have been involved in 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 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 still continued to work on the screenplay, pointing out that "once Phillip 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."
Noyce's first meeting with Chamusso had a profound effect on the director, who then asked Shawn to put even more of the true events back into the story. Shawn explains, "I had fictionalized 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 met Patrick for hours and hours, he responded immediately with 'Well if this happened, why isn't it in the script?'"
Noyce adds, "I wanted to sit 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 felt 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 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.
Noyce comments, "I found in Derek a man who brings not only emotion to his portrayal of Patrick, 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, because that is what I did when I read the script," states 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 found the strength to do something."
To help the African-American actor become the South African hero he would be playing, Noyce brought Luke to South Africa, six weeks prior to the start of shooting. Accordingly, Luke immediately ventured north of Johannesburg, near
the Kruger National Park, to meet with Chamusso. Today, Chamusso lives in a valley region with his wife and the 80 orphans that they have adopted and now care for.
Noyce was also on hand, and reports that "it was marvelous to see the two of them together! Here was Chamusso trying to imprint himself upon the eager American actor, and Derek trying to draw out the essence of the real man."
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, 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 was a blessing because he's so detail-oriented, and Patrick's story had become really engraved in his heart. Phillip also has concern for his actors, and for the technical part of our craft."
Noyce says, "I don't think Derek 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 spent ten years as a political prisoner of the apartheid regime. Derek 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 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 realized the wisdom of a man like Nelson Mandela, who in that cubicle had partly hatched the miracle that is South Africa today.
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. Noyce reveals, "We've all seen Derek 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'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 felt he had to fight back."
To play opposite Luke as Colonel Nic Vos, 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 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 clarifies, "I certainly didn't want to write in a stereotypical corrupt apartheid police element. Nic 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 to work with."
Robyn 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."
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's script; Vos is a complex character, rather than a classic baddie. Phillip 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 Luke, Robbins did an extensive amount of research and undertook weeks of preparation on his character and accent, as well as rehearsals opposite 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 realized 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."
Noyce reports, "Tim 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 Vos can take such strong actions against the enemies of the country that he so loves."
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 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 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, 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 Robbins, costume designer Reza Levy, and the crew how a 1980s South African policeman behaved and dressed.
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 Noyce.
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 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."
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; 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'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, 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, 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.
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 Chamusso's experiences that Luke spent many days talking with 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.
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.
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 part of their struggle.
The third starring role engaged the filmmakers on a worldwide casting search in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and America. Early on, Noyce was on a research trip to Cape Town when somebody recommended a young South African actress to be considered for the role of Precious Chamusso. He marvels, "When I saw Bonnie Henna, I was immediately struck by not just her humanity but also by her screen presence; her screen test was extraordinary."
Henna admits, "For a long time, I have been detached from what happened here in the past. So I saw it as a blessing for me emotionally and spiritually to be able to be in this film and become reunited with the past of my country.
"South African women haven't really gotten to express themselves that strongly in stories from that time period, so I loved that Precious is courageous; I couldn't wait to portray her."
Once filming began, Noyce further appreciated the extent of Henna's abilities. He says, "Bonnie had a very difficult role to play, because of the actions that Precious takes - extreme actions in the face of adversity. So much of her role has to be performed without dialogue; she had to reveal a catharsis, an action and a decision, simply through her facial expressions and body language. That takes remarkable acting ability, which she has."
Principal photography commenced on August 21st, 2005, with the production based in Johannesburg. One overriding logistical concern the filmmakers had was whether they could film at the Secunda oil refinery. Noyce says, "This refinery was vital to South Africa when Patrick attacked it, and it's still vital to the country. One might have expected that, asking to film a movie there about that very incident, in today's climate, would get you turned away, but that wasn't so. Armed with the Slovo name, we were able to get access to the real oil refinery that Patrick went after on Republic Day.
"I believe that South Africans feel that it's important, as it is for every country, to re-examine their history. They want their stories told, brought to the screen and shared with the rest of the world. In most countries, the answer is 'no' when you ask for permission to enter and film at particularly sensitive locations. But in South Africa, for Catch a Fire, all the government departments and institutions said 'yes.'"
READ AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK CHAMUSSO READ AN INTERVIEW WITH BONNIE HENNA
A BRIEF HISTORY OF APARTHEID (1948-1991) AND SOUTH AFRICA (1652-PRESENT)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ANC AND THE ANC MILITARY WING (MK)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PATRICK CHAMUSSO
SHOOTING THE FILM