With powerful immediacy, and an eerie resonance with today’s headlines, The Bang Bang Club takes us into the dangerous world of combat photography. Set in South Africa in 1994, the drama is based on the real lives of four men who photographed the violence just before that country’s first non-apartheid election.
But the greatest difference between then to now is a small one: their cameras seem primitive in our digital era. The Bang Bang Club and today’s news – and what happened recently to one of the photographers the film is based on – reveal how little has really changed.
The film’s South Africa, where photographers are caught in lethal crossfire, might also be Libya just yesterday, where Tim Hetherington, a war photographer and the co-director of Restrepo, and photographer Chris Hondros were killed while covering the fighting between rebels and Quaddafi’s forces.
The four photographers – Greg Marinovich (Ryan Philippe), Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) – competed with each other yet traveled into dangerous areas together for relative safety, and became known as The Bang Bang Club after they balked at being called Bang Bang Paparazzi in a feature story about them. They aren’t depicted as saints; they have as much careerism and addiction to danger as the next war reporter. But unlike paparazzi they have a sense of purpose, of creating images that make the world a witness to war and its unimaginable atrocities.
The film’s writer/director, Steven Silver, is a South African who lived through that period, and he carries us into the center of danger. We see horrors close-up even as the photographers take Pulitzer-Prize-winning shots: Marinovich, young and relatively green, sees a man burnt alive; Carter captures a now-famous image of a starving Sudanese child with a vulture hovering nearby. There are bloody corpses everywhere. And the film doesn’t shy away from the unresolved questions those situations evoke: what is the photographer’s responsibility?
Marinovich is the film’s center, and he confronts those questions most dramatically. At one point he asks his girlfriend, the paper’s photo editor (Malin Akerman) to hold a light while he take pictures of murdered corpses. He has lost sight of the question that makes her flee: where is the line between creating images that make witnesses of us all, and simply acting like a humane person?
The Bang Bang Club never becomes didactic, though. Silver doesn’t have to bludgeon us with themes; the real-life drama takes care of that.
Carter was a mess, increasingly out of touch because of drugs, haunted by the images that made him successful. As the film shows, he committed suicide, and left behind a wrenching note that read in part: “I am depressed .. without phone …money for rent … money for child support …I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen ..” Kitsch does justice to the best role he’s had yet.
Not long before Carter’s suicide, Oosterbroek was killed by crossfire between a peacekeeping force and supporters of the African National Congress.
And the drama continues to bleed off screen. The film’s end credits tell us that Marinovich has been shot four times in his career. They don’t tell us what happened since the film was made. This past October, while working in Afghanistan, Joao Silva stepped on a mine and lost both his legs. (He has begun walking with artificial legs, rehabilitating at Walter Reed Hospital, and Marinovich has started a website to help support him.)
The Bang Bang Club opens in New York and other cities tomorrow and is on VOD now. And tomorrow at 6:00 I’ll moderate a talk with Taylor Kitsch, Greg Marinovich and Steven Silver at the Apple Store in Soho as part of Apple and IndieWIRE’s Meet the Filmmaker series during the Tribeca Film Festival, so please come by. Of course, that’s beside the point; if I didn’t truly admire this film I would not have written a word about it.