THE FILM: CATCH A FIRE – TURNING THE DESIRE TO FIGHT BACK
Tags: South Africa, Films, Patrick Chamusso, Phillip Noyce, Reuters, forgiveness, stories of forgiveness
Sourced from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL3039453220070131
Phillip Noyce explores the making of a terrorist from the dark days of Apartheid, and finds that the example of Patrick Chamusso holds an important message for the world: forgiveness.
A REAL HERO FOR HOLLYWOOD
By Rebecca Harrison
Entertainment | Film
MGANDUZWENI, South Africa (Reuters) – He’s blown up buildings in the name of justice and partied with Clint Eastwood.
But Patrick Chamusso, the former rebel fighter who inspired the current Hollywood political thriller “Catch a Fire,” insists he’s an ordinary guy happiest tending to AIDS orphans in the dusty hills near South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
“They like me in Hollywood,” said Chamusso with a boisterous laugh, at his modest home in north-eastern South Africa. “In L.A. I was in the Four Seasons eating breakfast by the pool but that isn’t my life, this is my life here with these kids.”
Once an apolitical father and husband, Chamusso was beaten and tortured after the apartheid government wrongly accused him of sabotage. Incensed by the injustice of white rule, he left his family and became a guerrilla fighter code-named “Hotstuff.”
But his audacious attempt to blow up a key refinery went wrong and Chamusso was jailed, alongside anti-apartheid heroes Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.
He was released in 1992, when, after beatings, torture and a decade behind bars, a lesser man might have opted for a quiet retirement with a comfortable house and posh car.
Not Chamusso. He moved to an impoverished rural village and spent his special pension on a home for orphans — becoming a hero twice over.
“What’s the point of living an easy life if all the people around you are suffering?” he said in an interview in his poky office, plastered with pictures of the children he cares for.
“WHERE’S WESLEY SNIPES?”
“Catch a Fire,” written by the daughter of anti-apartheid stalwart Joe Slovo and directed by Phillip Noyce, whose previous films include “Patriot Games,” has already opened in the United States and premieres in South Africa next week.
Chamusso, who is played by Derek Luke, said he was disappointed when he first met the cast and crew.
“I thought Philip looked like a farmer not a director and I didn’t know this guy Derek Luke — I wanted someone like Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes,” he chuckled. “Tim Robbins was much too handsome to be the policemen, but when I saw them all in their roles I changed my mind.”
During a trip to the United States to promote the film, Chamusso partied with Clint Eastwood and Ricki Lake, ate breakfast with Morgan Freeman and watched baseball with Robbins.
He loved the attention and the glamour, but said his years in jail instilled the importance of serving others, and compares the struggle against HIV — which is ravaging southern Africa — with the battle against apartheid.
Chamusso, 57, and his wife Conney care for 14 children. They found foster homes for another 90 youngsters in the village, who visit their house daily for food, bible classes and to use the shiny bicycles donated by the film’s production company.
He hopes “Catch a Fire,” which won critical acclaim in the United States and was even tipped for an Oscar nomination, will not be dismissed as just another anti-apartheid film.
“It has a message of forgiveness,” said Chamusso, who still sees his torturers in the town near his home. “If other countries could offer the kind of leadership we produced the whole of Africa and even the whole world would be a better place.”
Sourced from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL3039453220070131
Buzzed-about scripts begin with passionate ideas
Fri Jan 5, 2007 5:11am EST
By Stephen Galloway
Sourced from http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0522411920070107
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Inspiration, it seems, is the easy part. Talk to any number of this year’s buzzed-about original screenplay writers, and what lies beneath the surface is often a decades-old passion for their subject matter.
Take Shawn Slovo, whose “Catch a Fire” lit up when her late father Joe Slovo, a hero of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, told her about an ordinary man who took a stand. There’s Paul Bernbaum, whose “Hollywoodland” came to life thanks to his childhood love of the TV series “Superman” and a latter-day curiosity about star George Reeves. And Emilio Estevez remembers the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — which he saw on television at the age of 6 and wrote about in “Bobby” — “as if it happened yesterday.”
They join other screenwriters, including Pedro Almodovar (“Volver”), Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”), Andrea Berloff (“World Trade Center”), Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”), Richard Maltby Jr. (“Miss Potter”), Nancy Meyers (“The Holiday”) and Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), in the race for Oscar consideration this year. But no matter how easily their stories came into being, no matter how polished the screenplays are now, the journey from original idea to shooting draft is rarely simple.
Estevez spent years thinking about his script, trying to define the style of film he wanted to see made.
“‘Is it a biopic? What is the approach here?’ I wrestled with what to do,” he recalls. “I wrote 30 pages and got a horrible case of writer’s block in the summer of 2000. That lasted for a year. And the 2000 elections came and went, and whenever anyone would ask what I was working on, it became the go-to excuse: ‘I am writing this thing.’ But I was truly paralyzed.”
In the summer of 2001, Estevez’s brother, actor Charlie Sheen, suggested he try a fresh environment for writing the script, and he ended up in a ramshackle motel at the beach — where it all came together. Says Estevez, “I finished the script about two weeks before 9/11.”
The events of that September gave Greengrass something to write about, too — specifically, what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed that day in a field near Shanksville, Pa.
“I very often start collecting pieces on things that might or might not turn into a film one day — books, cut-out pictures, material,” he explains. “At any one time, I have a couple of dozen little things, and I stick them in a file and put it up on the shelf. I started collecting pieces about United 93 quite early on.”
Greengrass was intrigued, he says, by “the fact that the passengers on the airplane were really the first people to inhabit our world, which is the post-9/11 world, because they knew what had happened on the ground. They knew this was an attack, and their choices spoke to me.”
A 25-page treatment was snapped up by Universal almost at once, but Greengrass had another challenge to deal with next: turning that treatment into a script based in reality. He approached the families of the flight’s victims about using their memories and descriptions of the passengers and crew in order to lend veracity to the film. None objected.
But the treatment held the most essential element, he says. “When you make a film like that, the only guide ultimately is whether you feel you’ve got something to say. You’ve got to feel in your heart and soul that you’ve got something to say about it. You are dealing with entirely real events, painful events, personal tragedy. If you didn’t search your conscience and approach it very carefully, you’d be making an error.”
Bernbaum also found his conscience to be part of the equation as he tackled George Reeves’ story, even though it happened decades rather than years ago.
“I really wanted to do right by Reeves because I grew up as a fan of the show,” he says. “I ran around in a little Superman costume when I was a kid. This was a project that I wanted to do for years and years, but I always wanted to do right by him.”
That task proved easier said than done. Reeves died in 1959, and Bernbaum’s only original source still living was “Superman” co-star Jack Larson. Additionally, Reeves’ death was the source of much controversy: Was he murdered, or did he commit suicide?
“There was a question of not really knowing that the research was accurate because there was always another side to it,” Bernbaum acknowledges. “I found everything that I could on him. I watched everything he did. I tried to get as much information as I could, but there were still areas of contradiction.”
Beyond deciding how to deal with Reeves’ death, Bernbaum also had to figure out how to approach the narrative of his chronologically fragmented story. Along the way, he chose to do so through the eyes of a detective (played in “Hollywoodland” by Adrien Brody), a composite of several real-life people on both sides of the legal system. Initially, he says, “They were all in the script, and then I kept paring it down until it was just the one private eye who is the gateway into the whole story.”
When the real-life people in the story you want to tell include your father, paring down the characters is another challenge altogether. That’s what Slovo faced with “Catch a Fire.”
Patrick Chamusso was a black South African who had remained passive under apartheid. But when he and his wife were wrongly accused of terrorist crimes, he was inspired to become a freedom fighter — and was trained by Slovo’s father. They eventually blew up the Secunda Oil Refinery, where Chamusso worked.
“He told me the story just a few months after that incident,” Slovo recalls of her father. “Like all screenwriters, you are always looking for a good story. He said Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary man who wanted a good life, a family and a future — all those boring, bourgeois things — and because of what happened to him, he took a different path. And that’s what appealed to me.”
This heroic tale took a more individual turn when Shawn Slovo met with Chamusso two weeks after his release from prison on Robben Island. He revealed that it was his wife who had ratted him out to the authorities.
Says Slovo, “Then I thought, ‘I have a story!’ That is the thing I went for: the effect of the political on the personal.”
Research shifted the story further. Slovo was surprised to discover that the security police would take good cop/bad cop routines to extremes just to soften up their captives. “There is a scene where (police officer Nic) Vos takes Patrick to his house, and that came from interviews with the security personnel. This is what they said they used to do: They tried to psychologically destabilize the suspects and confuse them,” she says. “Some had prisoners to stay in their house for the week. That was part of their tactics.”
Slovo knew these men and their thinking — they had murdered her mother. And perhaps because of that, she felt willing to take certain liberties in writing about them. But when Phillip Noyce came aboard to direct and the script entered its final stages, she was guided to return to facts over fancy.
“I am a lazy writer. I don’t like to travel; I don’t like to research,” Slovo admits. “But Phillip insisted on it. And the changes brought it much closer to the truth.”
That, in its manifold forms, was the ultimate point at which each of these writers wanted to arrive. “The film has a truth that only fiction can give,” Slovo says. “A truth and a power.”
A STORY OF THE MIRACLE OF SOUTH AFRICA
CATCH A FIRE – THE MAKING OF A TERRORIST
Sourced from http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=12513&s=Features
Phillip Noyce explores the making of a terrorist from the dark days of Apartheid, and finds that the example of Patrick Chamusso holds an important message for the world: forgiveness. Andrew L. Urban reports.
South African writer Shawn Slovo admits she was amazed that Tim Bevan and Debra Haywood of UK’s Working Title agreed to back her screenplay about her father’s friend, Patrick Chamusso; “It is an absolute miracle as far as I’m concerned that they backed a story about the making of a so called terrorist.”
And while topical all right, it might also seem at first glance to be a questionable subject, if a film is to make a hero of such a figure. But as director Phil Noyce points out, this is exactly the kind of story the world needs to hear. “It’s about forgiveness … and nothing can be achieved in this world without forgiveness.” That, coupled with the theme, is a powerful message – although Noyce makes sure the film is not a sermon but a drama.
To understand what Noyce means, we have to understand the story of Patrick Chamusso, who in the 80s was serving a 24 year prison sentence for an act of terrorism – albeit not the murderous terrorism as we have come to know it today, more an act of sabotage. Shawn’s father Joe Slovo, a former head of the military wing (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC) and later minister in Nelson Mandela’s first government, told her about Chamusso. If she ever wanted to write a story about the ANC’s armed struggle against Apartheid, then she should tell the story of Patrick Chamusso, an ordinary man who joined the ANC and tried to blow up the Secunda Oil Refinery. The refinery, one of the largest in the world, was a symbol of South Africa’s self-sufficiency at a time when there were economic boycotts in place to protect the regime’s policies. It was also a symbol of the wealth and riches of South Africa, earned in part by the exploitation of cheap black labour. Joe planned the mission and Chamusso carried it out single handedly, earning him the codename ‘Hotstuff’.
There are two key elements to Chamusso’s story that make the difference: first, he was a political innocent with no involvement in sabotage when he was first arrested, tortured and jailed on suspicion. These experiences radicalised him and propelled him into the arms of the ANC, where he sought to help change his world. His act of sabotage was carefully planned so as to avoid any casualties. It didn’t quite succeed.
But the second key element is about Chamusso’s character: he was sentenced to 24 years and sent to the labour camp on Robben Island. In 1991 when Nelson Mandela was finally freed after 27 years imprisonment, Chamusso had spent 10 years there; he was released as part of the amnesty granted to all political prisoners. Joe put Shawn in touch with him and they met two weeks after his release from prison. For the next three days, Shawn recorded Chamusso recounting his story and those conversations provided the inspiration for the film. Chamusso chose to forgive his captors – and now runs an orphanage in northern South Africa for children whose parents have died of AIDS.
“a character who audiences all over the world could identify with”
Shawn says. “I recognized in Chamusso, a character who audiences all over the world could identify with.” She explains, “He’s not a typical hero of South Africa’s struggle in that here 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. But when things did go wrong, instead of giving in or being immobilized, he decided to take control. That is extremely heroic to me.”
Noyce took the film seriously enough not to be over confident. “For the first three or four months of working on this movie I did virtually nothing else but meet people, trying to recreate the mood back in the early 80s, trying to understand things from a black and a white South African viewpoint.”
This involved travelling around with Robyn and Shawn and interviewing everyone that he could possibly meet who might have been involved in Chamusso’s story. They also visited the locations where the actual story took place, from the oil refinery at Secunda, through to the ANC villa in Maputo, Mozambique, retracing Chamusso’s journey out of South Africa to Angola, back into South Africa again and finally to prison on Robben Island.
He says, “In the end it was something rather simple that allowed me finally to have the confidence to make this movie and that was taking a car and driving around South Africa for about ten days. Once I could turn left and right and sort of navigate around the country I felt as though I had my feet on the ground, and now armed also with all the research, I could make a film about that place and that time and maybe do it justice.”
It was on the same research trip that Noyce met Chamusso for the first time. This first meeting had a profound effect on the screenplay as Noyce worked to have even more of the true events put back into the story. Shawn explains, “I had fictionalised the story because however good a story is, and however true to life it is, it doesn’t always make a film. When Philip met Patrick and spent hours and hours listening to his recounting of his story, his first reaction was, ‘well if this happens why isn’t it in the script?’
Noyce explains, “I just wanted to sit Chamusso down and intensively debrief him, get him to tell me the story of his life from birth as he remembered it right through to the present day. And for about two days he just spoke into a camera, into a microphone, going over it all.”
Noyce wanted to hear the reasons why Patrick felt that he had to leave that relatively comfortable life, cross the border to Mozambique and become a soldier? Why he felt that he had to take up arms and fight back against the Apartheid regime? Importantly he wanted to get all the minutiae, the details; how did Chamusso break into the Secunda refinery? What was it like training to be a soldier in Angola? What happened to him when he was imprisoned on Robben Island?
“a story about the miracle of South Africa”
The three key characters in the film are Chamusso, his wife Precious and the South African security officer Nic Vos; in the film they are played by Derek Luke, Bonnie Mbuli and Tim Robbins – the latter because Noyce wanted to avoid stereotype casting. “I felt that in Tim I’d found an actor who would be able to go beyond the stereotypical white South African racist villain that we’ve sometimes seen on the screen. I knew he could reveal how any one of us, the audience, could behave in exactly the same way as Nick Vos.”
Noyce adds, “Although this is a story about the past it’s also a story about the miracle of South Africa. And Chamusso is just one example of that miracle.”
Published November 23, 2006