Sometimes a film can be too timely for comfort. Last week, Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival hosted the U.S. premiere of The Bang Bang Club, based on the true story of four combat photographers working in South Africa during the final days of apartheid in the 1990s. One of them was killed by gunfire, another took his own life. The premiere took place the day after photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed by a bomb in the Libyan city of Misrata. Their loss may make the film more relevant, driving home the fact that photographers still routinely risk their lives in the line of fire. But it also sends a chill through this retro romance about combat photography—a Molotov cocktail of a movie that mixes graphic violence with bursts of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll bravado.
The Libyan deaths “cast a shadow over the premiere,” Steven Silver, the film’s South African-born, Toronto-based director, told Maclean’s. “But if the film was released three months or six months from now, there’s a good chance we’d be talking about the death of another journalist.”
This predominantly Canadian co-production is based on The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War (2000), a memoir by Johannesburg photojournalists Greg Marinovich and João Silva, the two surviving members of the group. (Last November, Silva lost the lower half of both his legs to a land mine while shooting in Afghanistan.) The story focuses on the war between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and the Zulu warriors of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which received covert support from the apartheid regime. The conflict, which killed almost 20,000 people from 1990 to 1994, was ignored by the censored South African media until the photographers’ images hit the front pages of the world press.
Ryan Phillippe stars as Marinovich, a naive rookie who joins a pack of seasoned photojournalists, and wins a Pulitzer Prize less than a year after his baptism of fire. His winning picture shows an ANC supporter taking a machete to a burning man. What’s shocking about the scene—and others re-enacted in the film—is that the photographer is so close to such visceral brutality. Recalling the first murder he shot, Marinovich wrote: “I was one of a circle of killers…just an arm’s length away.” Amid the horror, he recalls checking light readings, “as aware of what I was doing as a photographer as I was of the rich scent of fresh blood.”
This is a very different killing field from the one in Restrepo, last year’s Afghan war documentary that Hetherington co-directed, in which the Taliban forces are so far away we never see them. The Bang Bang Club takes us back to a pre-9/11, pre-digital age, before cellphone cameras, when events didn’t exist without photojournalists. The four young men come across as daredevil party boys who relish the work, but are haunted by their impassive role—especially the drug-addicted Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who commits suicide two months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his shot of a vulture stalking a starving child in Sudan. While Phillippe is the designated golden boy, Kitsch—the Friday Night Lights kid who’s poised to become a superstar with lead roles in two upcoming blockbusters—quietly steals the movie as the sweet, shambling Carter.
Phillippe’s lightweight image as the cute young terrier who seduces his picture editor (Malin Akerman) may unfairly tarnish the film’s credibility. And CNN’s Tom Cohen, who worked in South Africa in the 1990s, has criticized Silver for conflating characters, neglecting the political context and betraying the book. But this $6-million feature is no Hollywood sham. Silver—a documentary veteran making his dramatic feature debut—paid serious dues in the 1990s as an ANC activist. And he bent over backwards to be authentic. All the combat photos were re-enacted where they were originally taken, and Silva and Marinovich were on the set every day. But to compress a four-year conflict into a tight, adrenalin-charged drama requires some licence. Silver, like those Bang Bang cowboys, ran the risk of sensationalism every time he composed a frame.