Catch a Fire

The stuff of epic

"America's view of apartheid is simple and straightforward: We believe it is wrong. We condemn it. And we are united in hoping for the day when apartheid will be no more." Ronald Reagan

"Apartheid" is as remote to me as "democracy" must be to an Iraqi. Yet, for me the powerful film Catch a Fire catches the mean spirit of separateness, the brutal suppression of 25 million black Africans by three million white South Africans. As in 2004's Hotel Rwanda, a man risks all he has to help others in need. Unlike that film, Catch the Fire explores deeply the conflicts and weaknesses of real-life Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) in 1980-81 as he gradually becomes an avenger against the white regime, symbolized by Police Colonel Nick Vos (Tim Robbins), the chief of anti-terror operations.

This is a true-story thriller that director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) carefully crafts to show the flawed nature of heroism and the conflicted brutality of oppressors. Along the way to the repeal of apartheid in 1991, the film reminds us about the dangers of police detaining and torturing without challenge (a resonance with today's anti-terrorist laws) and the intertwining of personal passion and the larger issue of freedom (the hero protects his family by keeping a secret that eventually endangers them and the freedom movement).

The title evokes the revolutionary spirit of Bob Marley's music in America, and the "freedom songs" the black prisoners sing disguise their own revolution aided by the African National Congress, whose communist ties the film discretely acknowledges and downplays in favor of the personal-responsibility theme.

Noyce achieves a balance between the needs of private citizens and the tyranny of the state, showing how all agendas eventually become public when freedom is at stake. In its expansiveness, Catch a Fire goes beyond the parochial concerns of last year's Oscar nominee Tsotsi into a J.M Coetzee world of interconnected fears and ambitions, blacks and whites killing each other figuratively and physically, against a backdrop of beautiful country and people yearning to be free. It's the stuff of epic made real and accessible that doesn't forget it's the small stories that tell the big history.