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“Catch a Fire” is written by Shawn Slovo who is the daughter of the legendary anti-apartheid activis

Catch a Fire” is written by Shawn Slovo who is the daughter of the legendary anti-apartheid activists - Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Joe Slovo was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe - or MK - which was the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was general secretary of the South African Communist Party during the 1980s. 

“Catch a Fire”: New Film Depicts Life of South African Freedom Fighter Patrick Chamusso

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins joins us to talk about his new film, “Catch a Fire.” The movie tells the story of black South African freedom-fighter Patrick Chamusso. It depicts life under apartheid rule – a regime where torture and indefinite detention were commonplace for most of the population and the label terrorist was applied to those seeking to end apartheid and bring democracy to the country. We’re also joined by the film’s producer, Robyn Slovo, the the daughter of anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo. [includes rush transcript]


Torture... Terrorism... Indefinite detention... These are phrases that have become common post 9-11. Well, today we take a look at a new film about South Africa under apartheid rule – a regime where torture and indefinite detention were commonplace for most of the population and the label terrorist was applied to those seeking to end apartheid and bring democracy to the country. The film is called “Catch a Fire”, and it tells the story of black South African freedom-fighter - Patrick Chamusso.

Patrick was a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery, which was a symbol of South Africa’s economic might at a time when the world was protesting the country’s apartheid system. Patrick leaves his job and family to join up with the African National Congress and becomes a rebel fighter and political operative. Patrick eventually plans a crucial strike against Secunda.

“Catch a Fire” is written by Shawn Slovo who is the daughter of the legendary anti-apartheid activists - Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Joe Slovo was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe - or MK - which was the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was general secretary of the South African Communist Party during the 1980s.

  • Tim Robbins. Academy Award winning actor, writer and prodcuer. He won an oscar for his performance in Mystic River.
  • Robyn Slovo. She is the producer of "Catch a Fire" and the daughter of anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Shawn Slovo explaining why she wrote the film.

    SHAWN SLOVO: The idea for this film started in the early ’80s, in 1980, after the attacks on the Sasol oil refinery, which were organized by the ANC in exile in Mozambique at that point, masterminded by Joe Slovo, who is my father. And after those attacks, which Joe was very proud of, in a sense, because it was just a complete outsider job and involved nobody on the ground in South Africa, he said to me that “If you ever want to write a story set in this time about -- using the context of the struggle against, the fight against apartheid by the exiled ANC,” he said, “you must tell the story of Patrick Chamusso.”

    I think the main reason I wanted to tell his story is because he’s not one of the heroes or martyrs of the South African struggle, per se. He’s not a Nelson Mandela or a Steve Biko or a Thabo Mbeki or a Jacob Zuma. He doesn't have that kind of background, and he isn’t lauded in his country. His is a story of an ordinary black working-class South African who decided to take control of his life. He’s an every man.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Catch a Fire’s writer, Shawn Slovo. This is Patrick Chamusso, the man who Catch a Fire is based on.

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: I’m a last man in the class of the people. I’m the man from the grassroots. And it’s not always a story of a man like that being told to the world. Always the writers and filmmakers, they go to the well-known people. But I can see from today that [inaudible] generals and presidents who makes history.

    I feel proud, because I didn’t expect that a film like this can be made on my behalf. Definitely that was not my dream. I thought we did what we did in the struggle. I did my sentence on Robben Island and finished. Now, we are free. I was just sitting at home thinking that now I’m going to sit at home, and then waiting for my day to die. I didn’t think that something historical like this will happen to me. It’s not something that I planned. And it’s not something that anybody has planned. It just happened. So, for me, I am very proud.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Chamusso, himself. Catch a Fire is based on his character. The film is being released nationwide October 27. Well, Tim Robbins and Robyn Slovo join us in the studio now. Academy Award winner, Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a colonel in South Africa’s police security branch. Robyn Slovo is the producer of Catch a Fire, yes, and sister of the screenwriter, Shawn Slovo. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

TIM ROBBINS: Thanks for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let's start with you, Robyn, why you and your sister have produced and written this film?

ROBYN SLOVO: I think primarily because it’s a really good story. The story of Patrick Chamusso. Shawn would say, is a very exciting story that really needs to be told. I think the fact that it’s a story set in South Africa naturally comes from the fact that we are both South Africans with a big South African history. And I really think there’s a simple answer to that question, which is it’s a great story set in South Africa, which I think is a story that’s very rarely told.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Great in the sense that it represents the enormous transformation that’s occurred in the country and the role of the ordinary people of South Africa achieving their liberation, or…?

ROBYN SLOVO: I would say, absolutely. I think that South Africa is a completely unique country in the world today and that it’s become a shining example of how -- you know, because if I think back to the late ’90s, if somebody had told me South Africa was going to change, I mean, it was an impenetrable, impossible, terrible country for a very long time, with huge, almost insurmountable problems. And I think the prophesies at that time, and up ’til, you know, relatively recently, was that if the government was to change in South Africa, there would be rivers of blood. And I think what South Africa shows is there’s another way to achieve basically democracy. It came from a completely -- a police state, virtually, to really shining example of how democracy can work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why do you think that was? In terms of -- because you’re right, many people around the world were saying it’s only going to be a bloodbath there to eliminate white minority rule. Why was it able to make that transformation?

ROBYN SLOVO: Well, I think the best way to explain that is to quote from Patrick Chamusso, who is the subject of this film. When asked that question, he says that they did not want to be what their enemies thought they might be. And therefore, they didn’t want to be vengeful. They thought a very long time about how to respond. And in the South African Freedom Charter it says South Africa belongs to all of us, black and white, and I think allied to the fact that the ANC is a very sophisticated political organization and the leadership had spent a long time thinking about transition and, I think, thought about it very carefully.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Robbins, tell us the story of Nic Vos and Patrick Chamusso.

TIM ROBBINS: Well, Patrick was a foreman at a power plant, oil refinery, and he was a non-political person. He was a person that was interested simply in raising his family and towing the line and moving up the ladder and getting more and more money. And there’s a bombing in the plant that he has nothing to do with, and he’s arrested and tortured, accused of the crime, held in detention without any kind of legal representation. And then his -- and I play the character that arrests him and interrogates him. Through the course of several days, they get nothing from him, at which point they pull in his wife. They arrest his wife and involve her in torture, as well, at which point Patrick snaps, confesses to the crime, which he didn’t commit.

The character I play, although he is a person that engages in torture, does realize that the confession is false and releases him, at which point Patrick, because not only has he been humiliated, his family has been compromised as well, he leaves South Africa to go to train in another country with the ANC, with MK, to really become what this policeman feared he was. In essence, a good warning for today, you know? What happens when you throw out due process and what happens when you involve in torture, oftentimes you exacerbate the problem, create more enemies than you had in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: He joins Umkhonto we Sizwe.

TIM ROBBINS: He joins MK. And so --

AMY GOODMAN: This is the armed wing of the ANC.

TIM ROBBINS: That’s right. And at which point he returns to South Africa and actually does participate in an act of aggression against his former employer.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we’ll come back. Tim Robbins is our guest, Academy Award-winning actor, writer and producer. Robyn Slovo, also our guest, she is the producer of Catch a Fire and daughter of two anti-apartheid leaders, Ruth First and Joe Slovo. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, as we talk about this new film called Catch a Fire that’s opening across the country. It’s about Apartheid South Africa and a man named Patrick Chamusso, based on a true story. This is a scene in the film, where Patrick is falsely arrested for the first time.

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: It’s my camera, boss.

    POLICE OFFICER: Whose car is this?

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: My car, boss.

    POLICE OFFICER: Patrick. Where are you going, Patrick?

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: I’m going home, boss.

    POLICE OFFICER: Where do you get the money for this nice car and that nice camera?

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: No, boss, I work. I have a job. I’m a foreman, boss. I work at Secunda.

    POLICE OFFICER: Search him. Down! Down!

JUAN GONZALEZ: In this scene, Patrick joins up with the ANC resistance. Here, he is questioned by Joe Slovo and an ANC fighter.

    OBADI: Have you told anyone that you were coming to Mozambique?

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: No, not even my family.

    OBADI: Once you cross that fence, once you decide to fight back, everything is different. You cannot contact anyone on the other side. That means no phone calls, no letters. You may never see your family again.

    JOE SLOVO: Do you still want to go on?

    PATRICK CHAMUSSO: They have killed my friend, tortured my wife. For nothing. Yes, I want to go on.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Chamusso, his character, being questioned when he went to Mozambique to join up with the armed wing of the ANC. Our guests are Tim Robbins, who acts in the film as one of the stars of the film, as well as Robyn Slovo, who produced the film. Now, in this scene, we see him being questioned by two men. One of them is your father, is Joe Slovo. Can you talk about your father and his relationship with MK, with the armed wing of the ANC?

ROBYN SLOVO: Yeah, I mean, Joe was very unique, as well in the sense that he was one of the very few white men who became fully part of the ANC and of MK. He was the first white member of the national executive of the ANC, when it was legalized, and he was a minister in Mandela’s first government. He was the housing minister.

And I think his story is, he was a politicized young man. He went to work when he was twelve years old in a factory, and he joined a union. And because he was in South Africa, he obviously became aware of the most crucial issue, which is that he was living in the apartheid state. And from that point on, he trained as a lawyer. He worked as a lawyer with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. And the rest is history, basically.

He helped set up the military wing, and when the Rivonia Trial happened, when Mandela and Sisulu were put on Robben Island, Joe was out of the country. And he was wanted from that point on. He was supposed to be one of that group. And he felt very, very passionately and strongly -- he never forgot the fact that he should have been doing life in prison with the rest of them. So he dedicated the rest of his life, his entire life, to fighting to free his comrades from Robben Island and also to help change South Africa.

And, of course, his dream came true, because he returned in ’92 and became part of the first government. So, it’s a wonderful story.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, amazingly, not only your father, but your mother, were both university classmates with Nelson Mandela and also the founder of the Mozambique freedom movement of Frelimo in the 1940s. That’s an astonishing collection of people, all had built friendships from the university days as radical students.


JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of your life with your parents and the kinds of things that you were exposed to as children in this continuing battle, could you talk a little bit about that?

ROBYN SLOVO: Well, this is -- we’re talking about the '50s and the '60s, when repression really started to become intense in South Africa. And my memory, along with Shawn, the screenwriter, and our other sister Gillian, is that we were constantly being harassed, you know, even as children, as our parents were continuously being are arrested, put in prison -- there were all sorts of trials -- and that we were brought up totally with the knowledge, because we were children, of not exactly knowing what was going on, but knowing that there were all sorts of elicit things. For example, you couldn’t meet with black people. You literally couldn’t have a black person in your house. And so, we would be aware, when there was a meeting taking place with our parents and there was a black South African there, that this was to be kept secret.

The other thing I want to say is, obviously, one of the things that had the greatest impact upon our family was that in 1982 our mother, Ruth First, was working in Mozambique. She was an academic predominantly. She was different from Joe. She was as active as Joe, but she did it through the world of academia, through the UN. She wrote books. She wrote pamphlets. She was a speaker and a very important anti-apartheid activist. She was murdered by a parcel bomb, which was sent to her in Mozambique by the Special Branch.

AMY GOODMAN: Robyn, your sister Shawn also wrote a film that was based on the life of your mother, the film called A World Apart. And this is a scene, where the fictionalized Shawn, your sister, confronts her mother about a suicide attempt while she was in prison.

    DIANA ROTH: I was afraid. I was afraid I would have put other people in danger.

    MOLLY ROTH: What people?

    DIANA ROTH: Our friends, people like Harold.

    MOLLY ROTH: Your friends, your friends, your work. That’s all you care about!

    DIANA ROTH: Alright, my friends, my work, yes. But what we care about is the whole country.

    MOLLY ROTH: What about me?

    DIANA ROTH: You live here. You eat here and down the passage. But what about Elsie’s children?

    MOLLY ROTH: I’m not Elsie’s child! I’m your child!

    DIANA ROTH: You, listen to me! Elsie can’t live with her children. Why? Because she’s black. At [inaudible], people were shot down, shot in the back, shot running away! Solomon, he’s been murdered!

    MOLLY ROTH: I know that! Stop treating me like a child!

    DIANA ROTH: Alright. You’re right. You do know. I know you know. But I also know how much you’d understand if you only let yourself.

    MOLLY ROTH: You never tell me anything! I don't know what’s going on!

    DIANA ROTH: We can’t even talk amongst ourselves. It's not safe.

    MOLLY ROTH: I don't even know where Daddy is, why he left. It’s not fair! You’re never with me [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: From the film, A World Apart. Robyn, your response to growing up with your mother, and what that scene was, at what point in her life?

ROBYN SLOVO: Well, that was in 1963, when Joe was out of the country and Ruth was actually arrested, under the 90-day detention law, which, you know, they suspended. There was no habeas corpus in South Africa, so they just arrested her, did not charge her, kept her in for 90 days, and then on the 90th day, released her and re-arrested her and kept her in. And I think she, at that point, just lost hope. She’s written a book about it.

And this scene that’s taking place that Shawn wrote about, essentially the film is both a sort of praise poem to Ruth and what a fantastic woman she was, and also it’s the examination of how difficult it is to be the children of people who spend their whole lives fighting to save other children. And it’s, you know -- I mean, I wouldn’t regret it for a second. I feel so privileged, as does Shawn, to have had parents who set such a wonderful example. But there’s no question, it’s a tough life for children. You know, our parents were not around as much as they should have been, and that scene, I think, is about that dilemma.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Tim, there are lots of great stories in the world. Why did you decide you wanted to be in this film and be a part of this at this particular time?

TIM ROBBINS: Well, the script was so compelling. The idea was about, not a star of the movement, but a worker within the movement. It also, on a pure entertainment level, had a real kind of compelling pulse to it. It’s got an action element. It really works as entertainment. Directed by Phillip Noyce, who really does know how to do those kinds of movies. He’s done some pretty exciting thrillers in the past.

And what I truly love about the movie is, here you have this movie that’s churning along like this locomotive, like an action movie, and it gets to that final reel, and that obligatory scene that the audience is expecting, that one where the good guy gets the bad guy and there’s some retributive act of violence and the audience erupts, is not there. The filmmaker asks you, the audience -- respects the audience, I think, enough to know that they don't need that, that there’s something even more exciting and more compelling and more inspiring in the final reel of this story, and that is the story of Patrick Chamusso, the true story, the true story of South Africa, the true story of Mandela, the idea that you can come out of years and years of oppression and years and years of internment with a sense of forgiveness, with a sense of the future, with a vision for the future that allows for its -- the movement, the leaders, to say, “No, we’re moving forward. We’re not going to look backwards. We’re not going to be one of these countries that is going to waste years and years of time with retribution, with trials, with tribunals, with people being drug out of their houses in the middle of the night being beaten in the streets. That’s not going to happen here.”

And when you go to South Africa, you realize it is a miracle, is this truly remarkable achievement that’s happened there. And if you think about history, it’s really never been done, where you’ve come to the end of a struggle or the end of a war, and the leaders have said, “Let's forgive.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another scene. This one, you’re in, Tim Robbins’s character, police security branch officer Nic Vos, trying to get information about Patrick's whereabouts from his wife. Her name is Precious.

    NIC VOS: Going back to work? You lost your house now, living in a one-room shack, no money coming in. Maybe I can help you, Precious, use my influence, find you somewhere better to live. When you hear from Patrick, you let me know. You must ask yourself: where is he? Who’s he with now? Where does he sleep at night?

AMY GOODMAN: Nic Vos. He is the apartheid colonel trying to question Precious, as he drives along the car, and she won’t answer as she’s walking on the road. What kind of research did you do for this?

TIM ROBBINS: Well, both Derek Luke and I -- Derek plays Patrick Chamusso -- when we got to Africa, we realized not only did we have to get these characters and these difficult accents, but we really had to discover a continent, you know, and truly discover what South Africa was all about, each country being a completely different entity in Africa.

The idea of approaching this subject matter was pretty daunting, but Phillip Noyce had so many people from South Africa on the film, hired a pretty exclusively South African crew, so we all had advisors. He had -- Patrick, he had other people from the ANC. I had Special Branch officers, all of whom wanted to tell their story, all of whom felt that it was necessary to tell this story, which is another element of the whole idea of moving forward and forgiveness. And the idea that I was playing someone who had done illegal things, and I had advisors who had done those things, there -- as part of kind of a sense of -- I don't know -- spiritual rebirth, that started with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is continuing through this day with people like my advisor, Hentie Botha, who was clearly trying to absolve some kind of guilt or trying to move past what his past had forced upon him.

A lot of these guys -- you know, as difficult as it was for me to get my head around the idea of what it means to cross that line and who is asking whom to cross that line -- and there’s a lot of bitterness with these guys now being made the bad guys in retrospect, when in fact they were doing the bidding of a South African government. It was their duty to do this policing. They were encouraged to break the law. It was kept in secret. They couldn't come forward. They couldn't share it with their wives. And in retrospect, there were the ones that were blamed, when in fact the leaders of the country were the ones that had forced this kind of policy upon them.

AMY GOODMAN: Won the Nobel Peace Prize, right?


AMY GOODMAN: De Klerk. With Nelson Mandela.

TIM ROBBINS: Exactly. And as they put it, living in mansions with very healthy pensions, while we, you know, have lost our families. A lot of these guys' wives of divorced them when they found out the truth. And they historically are bearing the brunt of the blame.

And it begs the larger question, you know: when you are serving your country, when you are, out of duty, out of patriotism, trying to enforce the policies of the administration you’re working for, where does the moral bottom-line -- where is it drawn? How much can you walk away from that? A lot of these guys felt enslaved to it. They felt that if they walked away, they would be betraying country, they would be bringing shame upon their family. I asked, “Why didn't you?” They said, “We couldn't. It was like we were in the middle of a war, and we’d be to leave the battlefield.” So, some did, but it was a very, very difficult decision to make.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Trying to capture the humanity of the people on the frontlines on the oppressing side is really a difficult task. I’m reminded of the film, that classic Marlon Brando character in Burn!, in the 1970s film, trying to portray an English intelligence officer, or the Indochine film where the French inspector, trying to chase Vietnamese guerrillas in the 1950s. A similar type of thing. What happens in a resistance movement to the people on the frontlines who are fighting that resistance.

TIM ROBBINS: Well, in the end, they’re all victims of the struggle. It’s not to justify or rationalize it at all, but you can’t torture a person and walk out of the room with a clean soul. It’s just not going to happen. In your duty, in your performance of that duty, you are oftentimes compromising yourself and your own humanity and your own morality to a irrecoverable place, a place where, you know, you, for the rest of your life, have been compromised by your participation in something like torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us inevitably to a conversation about today, and after the break we’re going to go to an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Today is the announcement of the new Nobel Peace Prize. It’s going to Muhammad Yunus. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa won the Nobel Peace Prize, and this week he turned 75. And Robyn, your other sister -- you’re the youngest of three, Shawn being the oldest, and Gillian Slovo, the middle sister, and then, you, the youngest, Robyn -- Gillian wrote a fascinating play, together with Victoria Brittain, putting together the testimony of men at Guantanamo called Guantanamo. And when it opened in New York, Archbishop Desmond Tutu came and did some of the reading. I would like you both, in ending this conversation, to talk about the relevance today.

TIM ROBBINS: Well, the idea that when you throw out due process, it’s a slippery slope. You not only compromise the agents of the state that are working for you, but you’re compromising the whole process of democracy. You can’t -- I think it’s all done with the intent that it’s going to somehow help, but ultimately it’s something that makes more enemies than it gets rid of. And I think we’re seeing that, you know. I think that, you know, that’s a very relevant and salient point that the film touches upon. The film also touches upon the idea of forgiveness and what that means and how that’s achievable and how that may be the only way forward in this struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: But that came after acknowledgement. Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the key point there was that the only way someone could get amnesty is if they described exactly what they did.


AMY GOODMAN: The crimes they committed.

TIM ROBBINS: Right, right. True. And that is part of the process, yes. But even so, even so, there were some people that did not come forward, that did not admit responsability, and knowing that, people like Patrick Chamusso still had to move forward. They still had to be a larger person, a more courageous person, in forgiving and forgetting.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is Patrick Chamusso doing these days?

TIM ROBBINS: He has been with us touring around the country, talking. And he’s -- we hope to be get him on this show at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: We hope to talk to him. Final words, Robyn.

ROBYN SLOVO: What Patrick Chamusso is doing is he’s running an orphanage in the area where he lives. He’s looking after 88 children who have been orphaned mostly by AIDS and HIV, which, as we know, is a huge problem in South Africa. And he’s a man who, with his pension, MK soldier’s pension, just looked around him and saw there were children who needed looking after and gradually has got to the position where he’s now got 88 children in his house, feeds them, educates them, gets them, you know, donations for toys. Basically, he’s contributing to contemporary South Africa.

TIM ROBBINS: If you want to help that organization, it’s

AMY GOODMAN: For South Africa.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. The film is called Catch a Fire, and it’s coming out all over the country in the next two weeks. Tim Robbins, Academy Award-winning actor, writer and producer. Robyn Slovo is the producer of this film, Catch a Fire, and the daughter of anti-apartheid leaders Ruth First and Joe Slovo. When we come back from break, we’ll hear from Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he came to this country

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