I spoke with Greg Marinovich, the author of the memoir on which this movie is based, and its main character, yesterday. Our conversation is available here.
I heard that photographer Tim Hetherington had been killed in Libya last week as I was walking into a critics screening of The Bang Bang Club, which opens in Washington, DC today and has been playing in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago since April 22. Hetherington’s death will probably prompt a great many people to watch Restrepo, the excellent documentary about an American platoon stationed in Afghanistan that he directed with journalist Sebastian Junger. But viewers who are curious about how photographers and videographers capture the kinds of images that make Restrepo so powerful, and the ethical and emotional complexities of photographing combatants, ought to check out The Bang Bang Club too. It’s an occasionally uneven movie, but often a beautiful one, and serious about the practice of journalism in a way little popular culture ever is.
The movie’s title comes most recently from a 2001 memoir by Greg Marinovich and João Silva, itself drawn from a joking nickname for the group of photographers who covered the undeclared war in South Africa in the leadup to the end of apartheid. Ryan Phillipe is Marinovich, South African actors Neels Van Jaarsveld and Frank Rautenbach play Silva and Ken Oosterbroek, and Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch rounds out the group of photographers as glammed-up Kevin Carter.
The acting is imperfect: Malin Ackerman is clearly trying to establish her credentials as a serious actress by playing Star photo editor Robin Comley, but she’s mostly eye candy (as are the other female characters). Kitsch is very funny in one drug-addled scene, but it takes more than prettily downcast eyes to convey Carter’s combination of addiction, financial insecurity, and emotional strain. But Van Jaarsveld manages to be simultaneously belligerent and vulnerable as Silva. And Phillipe’s performance is a reminder, along with his tense FBI agent in Breach and his tormented soldier on the run in Stop-Loss, that he can be an unusually morally serious and thoughtful actor without being a dull one. A scene late in the movie where he runs back and forth across a road in the middle of a firefight to buy Cokes from a tuck stand is an impeccably staged action sequence, an exhibition of recklessness and humor.
Disparities in tone like that can be uncomfortable: there’s something callous about the way the photographers capture images of terrible violence in South Africa’s black townships during the day and retire to rock clubs and barbeques in the evening. To the movie’s credit, it’s fairly good at pointing out that those transitions are evidence of an unsustainably postponed reckoning with the trauma of documenting hideous and highly personal acts of violence—and that the characters are protected by their skin. “You’re lucky, you’re white, you shine, you can go everywhere,” a black photojournalist tells the main characters at a bar they both frequent.
In reference to the characters’ profession, cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak shoots different sequences in strikingly different styles: the township scenes are crisp and bright, Carter’s emotional struggles are washed in grayish blue, a weekend getaway looks like a faded snapshot from an optimistic late-1960s ad campaign. The transitions heighten the narrative’s contradictions, though the signaling isn’t always necessary: the emotional and ethical stakes are clear, and they are high.
Because much of the violence the photographers document in the movie is committed hand-to-hand with weapons like knives, clubs, pipes, or petrol and matches, there are situations where they actually could intervene effectively to protect people who were being attacked. The characters have anti-apartheid views, though they shoot pictures of violence committed by the African National Congress as well as the Inkatha Freedom Party (which the government at least tacitly allowed to attack ANC supporters). Marinovich becomes the first South African photographer to win a Pulitzer Prize for photos of ANC supporters murdering a suspected Inkatha spy. After the photos are published, the police try interview him for an inquest into the killing, and Marinovich avoids cooperation so he can keep covering the ANC without being branded a traitor. “I hate them all, the Inkatha, the comrades, this place,” Marinovich despairs in the movie, summing up the impossibility bearing witness while remaining neutral.
And Silver doesn’t just have the characters agonize. Several of the movie’s best sequences show how the photographers got the real-life shots that made them famous. Marinovich tries to get the ANC supporters to stop beating the suspected spy, but when he fails, keeps shooting, even as the comrades threaten to stab him. On the trip to Sudan where Kevin Carter took the picture of a starving child stalked by a vulture that won him his Pulitzer, the movie follows all the shots he took on the way to finding the frame that became an international symbol. And craft becomes a proxy for emotional engagement when Marinovich and Comley venture into a township at night to shoot pictures of a child murdered in a joint raid by Inkatha and the police. Comley breaks down, her hands shaking as she holds a bare lightbulb over the body. “You’re moving too much,” Marinovich rebukes her, condemning both her technique and her emotional reaction.
The bill eventually comes due for the members fo the Bang Bang Club: Oosterbroek dies and Marinovich is shot in a burst of pre-election violence, and Carter, under pressure for failing to help the girl in Sudan and feeling his career has stalled, commits suicide. In reality, the costs were higher, and some of the participants are still paying. Gary Bernard, a young photographer Oosterbroek recruited to The Star first as an intern and later as a staff photographer, killed himself in 1998. And last October, Silva stepped on a mine in Afghanistan and lost both of his legs below the knee. He continues to recuperate at Walter Reed. The Bang Bang Club may chronicle history, but the issues it addresses are painfully contemporary.