Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
The Bang Bang Club is the story of four conflict photographers, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and João Silva, in the build-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. These high profile photographers were like soldiers, their weapons – cameras and their ammo – extra spools.
As South African photo journalists, they were on the forefront of a civil war, one being fought in areas known as “dead zones” between two warring political parties. Fearless sometimes foolish, they captured a portrait of life and death in motion and relayed it to white South Africans and the rest of the world, who were largely unaware of the bloodshed. The Bang Bang Club were the equivalent of rock stars and documentary director Steven Silver has developed a film that captures the Zeitgeist, touching on the ethical dilemma and moral point-of-view that confronted these adrenalin junkie photographers. The biographical drama follows a similar trajectory to most “rockumentaries” as a band of talented artists club together, go on the road, live hard, play harder and win fame, only to suffer the consequences.
The film is a journey from Greg Marinovich’s perspective, based on his and João Silva’s experiences of the events as depicted in their book, ‘The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War’. The movie has a similar edge to many Vietnam war films, setting music from the same era against disturbing images of war with questions arising about the media’s role and responsibility in times of war.
The Bang Bang Club recreates the stories in a biographical manner, giving each major event in their timeline a context and dramatising them to give more depth and raw emotional power. It’s like fleshing out the pictures, giving their side of the story and making sense of a time when you had to conserve photographs, carry camera bags and load spools quickly in a hot situation. These photographers were in the line of fire, risking their lives to bring news to life and earn an income.
Greg Marinovich is played by Ryan Phillipe, who recently co-starred in The Lincoln Lawyer. This Hollywood actor has been steadily carving a name for himself with a string of solid supporting performances and continues the trajectory into The Bang Bang Club. Phillipe captures Marinovich, who is depicted as the new kid in town – earning respect from his peers while repressing a spate of violent memories, starting with a man being killed in the street by a gang of ruthless opposition party supporters.
Malin Akerman, The Bang Bang Club’s leading lady is something of an Amy Allen to the photo journalist equivalent of The A-Team. While her role as Robin Comley is not in the firing line, she represents the group’s “agent” – providing a classic lead to offset the testosterone and help convey more of Marinovich’s psychological frame of mind. Case in point, her inclusion in the iconic Bang Bang Club members photo turn movie poster.
Taylor Kitsch stars as Kevin Carter, delivering a free-spirited Jim Morrison take on the man – giving credence to the soundtrack and rock ‘n roll atmosphere as the group spend their free time on bars, girls and “Bang Bang” gigs. The up-and-coming actor delivers one of the better performances of the ensemble in a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a man obsessed with death and haunted by his encounters with violence and suffering.
Of the supporting South African actors, Frank Rautenbach plays Ken Oosterbroek. The much-admired photographer was thought to be invincible and Rautenbach gives the tragic figure a superhero quality – establishing a strong South African flavour. Neels van Jaarsveld’s subtle portrayal of João Silva, gives the character a low profile just out of the spotlight’s reach. Vusi Kunene delivers a powerful, heartrending single scene performance as a distraught father, while Russel Savadier is the “David Brent” figurehead for the toothless newspaper tiger.
The Bang Bang Club’s production values are phenomenal, recreating documented scenes with a strong sense of accuracy from protest mobs and police trucks to special forces uniforms and violent personal attacks. The extras deserve a special mention, capturing an anger and restless spirit that adds documentary realism to the events.
All in all, Silver has composed a compelling day-in-the-life style docudrama with a solid ensemble and a great sense of realism. While key ethical dilemmas and struggles are merely presented, it’s more about relaying stories than pointing fingers and entering debate. The film captures the life and times of pre-election South Africa and delivers harrowing photographic evidence of a violent, complicated time in its history from the perspective of four gung-ho photographers, whose Pulitzer prize-winning photographs and notoriety has etched an indelible mark on photographic journalism. Be sure to catch the Special Assignment feature on The Bang Bang Club for more context.
This ‘The Bang Bang Club’ review was first published at SPL!NG.