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Movies/TV Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

The Making of a ‘Terrorist’
By Esther Editor and Film Critic
Oct 26, 2006, 20:13

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“What kind of man are you???” cries Patrick Chamusso in a South African interrogation room, where he realizes with horror that the police have harmed his family to coerce him to confess to a crime he did not commit.

Chamusso, played by actor Derek Luke in the new, heart-stopping political thriller “Catch a Fire,” shouts into an opening in the wall so that he can be heard on the other side by the police, headed by the cool and calculating Nick Vos (Tim Robbins). This is a pivotal moment in the film, not just for the plot but for asking questions that are at the heart of it. What kind of man is a terrorist? What kind of man gets to label and accuse the terrorist? What is a terrorist? And what is a freedom fighter?

To answer these questions, the filmmakers tell a story based on the real life of Chamusso, who was transformed from an apolitical yes-man to a militant fighter for the liberation of South Africa’s 25 million Blacks from the genocidal system of apartheid.

When we meet Chamusso in the story, he is with his beautiful wife Precious, his mother and two young girls. His position as a foreman at an oil refinery provides him a slightly higher standard of living than that of most Blacks in the country. His family has a small home, a car and he even has a prized 35mm camera. What he pays in return is a studied subservience to the rigid order of White supremacy. “Yes, bossman,” is his quick reply to Whites. When one of his subordinates at work is called a “cheeky kaffir” (meaning a slick n-----) by a White security guard, he readily agrees in order to diffuse the situation and prevent the worker’s firing. At home, he scolds his mother for tuning into radio broadcasts from the banned rebels, the African National Congress (ANC). But his yes-man demeanor changes when he is falsely accused of helping to bomb the oil refinery. Arrested, beaten and tortured—and then finally driven to his breaking point—he changes his mind about obedience to the racist status quo.

This is powerful storytelling. Director Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence) maintains an immediacy and unsparing intimacy—whether brutal or sweet—from beginning to end. The writer is Shawn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo, a White South African who served as head of the military wing (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC) and was a Cabinet member in Nelson Mandela’s first post-apartheid government. Shawn Slovo has said in interviews that her father, who died in 1995, always told her that Chamusso’s story and the story of the oil refinery bombing would be one to tell in a movie. She could have easily told an important story about her parent’s pivotal role in fighting apartheid—her mother was killed by a parcel bomb sent by White extremists—but then we would have another movie like “Cry Freedom,” with a story about 25 million Blacks told through the eyes and experiences of one White man.

The battle of wills, and sometimes of life and death, between Chamusso and Vos (Luke and Robbins) is riveting. After moving us in “Antwone Fisher” and “Friday Night Lights,” this is certainly Luke’s biggest opportunity to show his ability to pour himself in a role. And he does it here with a lilting accent that sounds flawless (to my foreign ears). While the finished film does not give us enough time to digest and appreciate Chamusso’s evolution into a revolutionary, Luke uses what is given him to carry the story. Tall, blond Tim Robbins morphs eerily into a cool torturer, a man who believes that violence and torture can yields truth, rather than easy answers from those who are physically and emotionally broken. Within the larger tale of Chamusso’s life, it is the squaring off between these two men that allows the film to take a fine measure of manhood, how it is shaped—and warped.

“Catch a Fire” is rated PG-13 for subject matter involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.

Links: Similar Stories of Interest at Seeing

  • Idi Amin in Living Fiction

  • “The Last King of Scotland,” a story about the brutal Ugandan leader Idi Amin, washes over the viewer like a tsunami of political turbulence, violence and murderous madness. It is all fiction written by a White man. Should that matter?

  • Silverdocs 2006: South Africa

  • A review of His Big White Self,” a close-up portrait of African Nazi Party (AWB) leader Eugene Terreblanche, by director Nick Broomfield, who brought us “Biggie and Tupac.”

  • Revealing Africa's Hidden Genocide

  • A horrible and shocking history is revealed in "Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death." The shock comes, first of all, from the fact that, between 1880 and 1920, as many as 10 million Congolese were murdered under the barbaric rule of King Leopold II of Belgium.

  • In “The Constant Gardener,” an Endgame in Africa

  • “The Constant Gardener,” a disquieting tale of greed and murder, would seem to tell a story about Africa and African people. Not!

  • Easy Pain, Easy Death: Reviews of ‘City of God’ and ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’

  • "Rabbit-Proof Fence," directed by Phillip Noyce, is a powerful film that tells the story of how, from 1900 to 1970, the White Australian government kidnapped young Aborigine girls and trained them to be domestics for Whites.

    © Copyright 2006

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