By: Roxana Hadadi
While watching “The Bang Bang Club,” I couldn’t stop thinking about Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two award-winning photojournalists who were killed April 20 while covering the conflict in Libya. They had Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize nominations between them, and both died doing what they loved: trying to share the impossible hardships of the world through one picture. There are few things I respect more.
“The Bang Bang Club,” based on four real photojournalists covering South Africa during Apartheid, wants your respect, too. The film, based on the 2000 book “The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War” by photographers Greg Marinovich and João Silva, focuses on the pair and their colleagues, Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter, who all worked together in South Africa for The Star newspaper between 1990 and 1994. Marinovich and Silva, the only two living members of the four, helped with creating the film, and it certainly portrays them all as brave, reckless and gutsy, vaulting into dangerous situations that nearly everyone else ran away from. Blazes and gunfire were dangerous, sure, but opportunities for pictures outweighed all that.
But the film, despite its visceral images of war and the ballsy way it portrays the Bang Bang Club, fails to make audiences feel like they really know Greg (Ryan Phillippe), Kevin (Taylor Kitsch), Ken (Frank Rautenbach) or João (Neels Van Jaarsveld), or The Star’s picture editor, Robin Cromley (Malin Akerman). The five don’t get equal attention onscreen – Greg and Kevin get more development than the others – and while we get glimmers of everyone’s personalities, some are harder to figure out.
Robin is supposed to be conflicted, torn between recognizing the importance of the men’s pictures but unable to get them printed in the touchy Star, but she often just makes out with Greg and looks forlorn. Ken is determined and frank, the chief photographer and de facto leader of the group, but his lines are few and far between. Similarly sketchy is João, whose biggest moment comes when he flips out over a magazine story calling them “paparazzi,” a term he finds offensive. Otherwise, he scowls a lot.
Would it have been possible to give everyone the same treatment? Of course not – lots of ensemble films, like “Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels or crime thrillers like “The Departed” and “Heat,” focus on main actors like George Clooney and Al Pacino and give less attention to supporters like Bernie Mac or Danny Trejo. But one of the main philosophies of the Bang Bang Club was the members’ competition and equality – they considered themselves equals, and though Kevin’s and Ken’s deaths certainly make the story more dramatic, it was ultimately an all-for-one-one-for-all, Three Musketeers mentality. If you aren’t aware of that dynamic going into the film, you would think Greg and Kevin are getting more of the film’s attention because of their Pulitzers – not necessarily the most fair assumption.
The narrative focuses mainly on Greg, who in 1990 begins to freelance for The Star after running into Kevin, Ken and João at the aftermath of a murder. Greg, wanting to better understand why the man – a supporter of activist Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress political party – was murdered by the Inkatha Freedom Party, a rival political group that disagreed with Mandela’s efforts because they thought it would deny them work, goes into an IFP stronghold on his own. He somehow walks out alive, and his pictures from inside capture the eye of Robin and the rest of the photographers; soon, he’s accompanying them on assignments, covering protests and bloody fights between the rival groups.
The action begins to take its toll, though, especially after Greg wins a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a particularly affecting photo of ANC members brutally murdering a man they thought to be an IFP spy. Kevin begins to use more drugs. Ken and João start to resent the constant violence, planning what they’re going to do after the country’s first free election in 1994. As the four years progress and the Bang Bang Club begins to fall apart, the country grows more chaotic – normally good news for photojournalists, but not necessarily for men struggling with the personal demons that pandemonium has created.
Phillippe and Kitsch, given the most drama to deal with, shine the brightest here – both bring nuance to their downward spirals into frustration and depression, and Kitsch especially excels as the tortured Kevin. Rautenbach and Van Jaarsveld are fine, but little more than props in most scenes; neither is as flat, however, as Akerman. She’s completely boring as someone who is supposed to be the Bang Bang Club’s champion, and she never conveys the kind of urgency and anxiety the other actors do.
“The Bang Bang Club” isn’t rated, but would probably get an R if the MPAA had its say: There’s cursing, some sexual content (a few implied sex scenes, including one topless woman) and tons of violence. A lot of what happened during Apartheid was terrible, and the scenes re-creating it are, too – men are stabbed or slashed to death by machetes, lit on fire and attacked by police officers with machine guns. There are also numerous dead bodies and bloodied victims, as well as drug use and some emotionally weighty scenes, including Kevin’s famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a vulture stalking a young girl and his later suicide. It’s pretty wrenching, and a lot of the images will probably be unforgettable for more sensitive teens.
But your emotions ultimately won’t be impacted by what happens to the Bang Bang Club but by the overwhelming violence – you don’t feel what they went through, you just view it from a distance. Most of the cast does its best to capture the mania of those days, but “The Bang Bang Club” as a whole just can’t convey the pain we know not all of them were lucky enough to live through.