It’s their first interview of the day, and Phillip Noyce and Patrick Chamusso greet each other like long-lost friends, bantering about the events of the previous day.
“You left me!” scolds Chamusso, a portly South African with an egg-shaped head, who’s wearing brown slacks and a shirt patterned with earth tones.
“I didn’t abandon you!” insists Noyce, a large, rumpled Australian with a mop of white hair, a close-cropped beard, and black-rimmed glasses.
Noyce is a film director, as he already demonstrated before Chamusso entered; preparing the Georgetown hotel suite for the interview and photo shoot, he moved chairs and reset lights. Chamusso is a former African National Congress (ANC) freedom fighter, or “terrorist,” who made a solo attempt to blow up the Secunda coal-to-gasoline refinery, where he used to work. This event is why Chamusso (played by American actor Derek Luke) is the central character in Noyce’s Catch a Fire—and why he almost didn’t get across the border the previous day.
“We’ve had a saga,” Noyce explains. “He spent a few hours in a holding pen on his way in from Toronto.”
“Anyway, they let me in,” shrugs Chamusso, who served 10 years of a 24-year sentence in South Africa. He was released from prison in 1991, after the ban on the ANC was lifted.
Although they come from different sides of the Southern Hemisphere, and of their nations’ racial divides, Noyce and Chamusso say they bonded easily. “We were both born in the same month of the same year. April 1950,” the director notes. He explains their link—something about “tiger/Aries”—in terms that make no sense to the astrologically disinclined. So what does it mean?
“It means we see eye to eye, even when we can’t see each other’s eyes.”
The first Noyce film to be distributed in the United States was 1978’s Newsfront, which had strong political undertones. Recently, the director has made two additional political films, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. In between, however, he supervised such mainstream Hollywood movies as Patriot Games, Sliver, Clear and Present Danger, and The Bone Collector.
“Those big thrillers were political in a way,” the filmmaker argues. “Clear and Present Danger was as political as this film, in a funny way.”
Noyce says he didn’t set out to be a political director, but “I was always interested in history. The last three movies have been a conscious decision. Once you reach 50, you realize there are only so many films you can do. So I decided to do ones that are really important to me.”
Catch a Fire took Noyce further from his own experience than any previous film, so before he began shooting he spent nine months in the country. For several months, he traveled South Africa with scriptwriter Shawn Slovo (who also wrote the autobiographical 1988 film A World Apart) and her sister, producer Robyn Slovo. They’re the daughters of the late Joe Slovo, chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing (and a character in this film).
“His skin was white, but in his heart he was a man of the people,” says Chamusso of Slovo. “That was the first white man I trusted.”
“It’s a hard story for me to tell as a white Australian,” Noyce says. “It was a story about the potential of greatness in all of us. And it’s also the story of the transformation of South Africa.” Ultimately, he decided that “the only way it’s going to be done is if I give up being directorial and bring on a large number of black and white advisers.”
That meant many people with firsthand experience. “I had so many people who were there,” the director says, among them ANC fighter David Mbatha. “He was there to direct the extras, and to teach everyone those wonderful freedom songs.”
Chamusso doesn’t object to white filmmakers arriving from overseas to tell African stories. “I think it is good,” he says. “Most of our TV and film directors at home are still sensitive”—the ANC veteran’s favored euphemism for various forms of antagonism. “Because most of them are white South Africans, and they don’t want to show what their friends did. But he’s from Australia. You won’t see him on the streets after the film is done.”
“I found it so difficult to agree that this film should be made,” he adds. “But I did really like this man. I could see that this man was so serious about it. I could see that he’s a man of peace.”
After his release from Robben Island prison, Chamusso followed ANC procedure and went to Joe Slovo to report on his mission. Slovo referred him to his daughter to tell his story. Traveling to a white Johannesburg suburb to meet Shawn Slovo, Chamusso was uneasy. “First of all, I didn’t like Shawn. It was a sensitive time,” he says.
What he apparently means is that he wasn’t sure that he could trust the woman he was going to meet before he glimpsed her. “Then I saw her, and I knew she was a genuine Joe Slovo daughter. I knew her mother, too. Then I relaxed.” (Slovo’s mother, Ruth First, was also active in the ANC; she was killed in 1982 by a letter bomb that was likely sent by the South African military.)
Robyn Slovo became one of the film’s co-producers, along with Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and director Anthony Minghella. “Robyn wasn’t the money producer,” Noyce explains. “But the Slovo name just opens doors in South Africa. In black South Africa, they’re just revered.
“Filming at the Secunda oil refinery would not have been possible without the Slovo name,” he adds.
Shawn Slovo wrote the film’s original script in the ’90s but then shelved it. “She wasn’t sure that there was enough distance to tell the story,” says Chamusso.
When Noyce came to the project in 2004, he decided to videotape Chamusso’s recollections and visit some of the important sites with him. “He showed us where the story happened. I think on some days that was pretty hard for you.”
Chamusso nods. “It was hard. It was still hard for me.”
“He talked for three days or so,” says Noyce. “I shot it on DV and then edited it down and gave it to Shawn. And I said that all the things I left in, I think should be in the movie.”
“She’s a woman, and I’m a man,” he notes. “She had been interested in the internal transformation. I was busy adding the boy stuff.”
For example, Noyce was fascinated by the plant, which used “coal-to-oil technology they had bought from Nazi Germany in 1943, and how Patrick got into it. There are five mines around the plant, with conveyer belts that led in. And he rode one of the belts in.”
“ANC surveillance went and looked at it and came back and said, ‘No, it’s not possible,’” Chamusso remembers. “But I went to Joe, and I said, ‘It is possible.’ And that’s why I went alone.”
Much of Catch a Fire, including Chamusso’s reluctant embrace of violent resistance, turns on the torture supervised by Afrikaaner Police Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos (played by Tim Robbins). Yet Noyce says he didn’t really think about recent images and reports of torture from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. “The advantage of any historical story is that if you look to the past you’ll inevitably see the present and the future. But we didn’t make this film as a parable.”
The director’s idea of the film’s universal message is that “we the people need to solve the problems. Because the man upstairs is not going to do it. And I don’t mean that man upstairs,” he says, pointing skyward.
Chamusso endorses the decision to forgive the architects and enforcers of apartheid, a post-victory strategy the ANC members discussed while still incarcerated on Robben Island. Today, he lives in the nation’s rural northeast with his second wife—the unraveling of his first marriage is part of Catch a Fire’s plot—and they run an orphanage called Two Sisters. If reliving the events depicted in the movie was difficult, he has no fear that such times will return.
“I’m not scared to go anywhere,” Chamusso says. “Because I know no one is following me.”
“That’s going to change,” Noyce teases him. “I Googled you months ago and I got three references. Yesterday, I Googled you and got 3,000.”—Mark Jenkins