Why would someone willingly place themselves in the middle of a deadly situation without protective gear or weapons? In the case of war photographers, they do it for that image that says more about a conflict, in a fraction of a second, than any scholar could in a lifetime of work.
The Bang Bang Club is based on the true story of four South African photographers who undertook that quest in the early 90s to show their country and the world the civil war raging in South Africa's townships during the run-up to South Africa's first free elections.
Ryan Philippe plays photographer Greg Marinovich, who joins the men who would eventually be called the Bang Bang Club for the way they bravely (some might say recklessly) faced down bullets while shooting back with film. Taylor Kitsch plays Kevin Carter, the club's charming but erratic wild child, with Neels Van Jaarsveld as Joao Silva, known for staying unflappably cool under fire. Frank Rautenbach plays Ken Oosterbroek, the group's most experienced photographer and putative leader, and Malin Akerman plays Robin Comley, the photo editor who hired the club and fought for their pictures to be published.
So are these shutterbugs adrenaline junkies, journalists, artists, or simply guys with a death wish? As the film follows the lives of the men with and without their cameras, we see that there are no easy answers.
The club's talent, daring and hard partying earns them rockstar status with all the requisite perks, but the film never strays from the inevitable consequences of the group's work, the detachment it demands, and the strain it puts on their relationships. Perhaps the biggest danger is the damage done to the men's psyches from putting themselves and their lenses inches away from horrific brutality and excruciating anguish. Yet this pain is not without its rewards, as in one scene where Marinovich swings from the trauma of witnessing a murder to elation that his photo of it has won a Pulitzer Prize.
One African character accuses the group, who are all white, of being unwitting propaganda tools, supplying proof that Africans are too savage to govern themselves. Maybe the Bang Bang Club is simply a cute name for a bunch of vampire paparazzi, secretly desiring and feeding off of suffering. This possibility weighs most heavily on Carter, who is haunted by and eventually succumbs to the guilt he feels for capturing a heartbreaking image in the Sudan that won him a Pulitzer.
The acting in The Bang Bang Club is strong across the board, particularly from Kitsch as the charismatic and troubled Carter, as well as the African actors who breathe life and give voice to the faces in the photos. Writer/director Steve Silver does an excellent job of recreating the settings of the club's famous photos, often filming with hundreds of extras in the same Soweto slums where the original images were taken.
Sadly, the release of The Bang Bang Club coincides with the recent death of Tim Hetherington, the conflict photographer and co-director of Restrepo (see my review here), the Oscar-nominated documentary about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Bang Bang Club shows that what drives people like Hetherington, who was killed while on assignment in Libya, can be hard to discern, even for themselves. But when one of them falls, why they do it ceases to matter as we are reminded of what they've done, which is risk their lives to witness something, giving the rest of us a chance to truly see.
The Bang Bang Club is rated R and can be seen in select theaters and on Video On Demand.
Watch the trailer for The Bang Bang Club below.
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