Film Review: The Bang Bang Club

22 July 2011 - 01:09 By TYMON SMITH
Ryan Phillippe, centre, as Greg Marinovich, Patrick Lyster as American photographer James Nachtwey, left, and Neels van Jaarsveld, right, as Joao Silva, and a member of the National Peacekeeping Force in a scene from 'The Bang Bang Club'
Ryan Phillippe, centre, as Greg Marinovich, Patrick Lyster as American photographer James Nachtwey, left, and Neels van Jaarsveld, right, as Joao Silva, and a member of the National Peacekeeping Force in a scene from 'The Bang Bang Club'

The opportunity to tell the story of an emotional era in SA is lost in The Bang Bang Club

Director: Steven Silver

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels van Jaarsveld, Malin Akerman

Forget  about the fact that it is based on a true story that is fresh enough in our collective conscious that many of us still remember and care about it.

Forget about the fact that some of its characters are real people we know. Forget about the fact that it stars two Americans doing their best to imitate our accents and failing enough to irritate us.

Forget about the fact that poetic licence has been taken with the events and characters described in its source material - conflating characters into people they weren't, creating situations and making up conversations that didn't exist.

Forget about all of this and you still can't but help leaving a screening of The Bang Bang Club with the nagging feeling that yet another opportunity to tell a fascinating story of a complicated and emotional period in our history has been missed.

The problem with documentary director Steven Silver's first feature film is one that goes to the heart of issues around representation and the difficulties of adaptation.

Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva's book may have had its faults, but it told a compelling and emotional story of four men living and working together through a violent and difficult period in the years leading up to democracy, and how they went about capturing images in the midst of pitched battles on the streets of South Africa's townships - between ANC and Inkatha supporters.

It utilised the luxuries afforded by the medium of literature, which allow you to take as much space as you need and describe as many feelings as you will in order to carve a picture that is insular but also aware of the bigger story.

The film adaptation, written by Silver, is an uncertain, ill-formed, sickly child of the book - unable to decide what and whose story it wants to tell and why.

Focusing too much on the daredevil antics of its protagonists and shying away from giving each of them the space they deserve to be well-rounded, compelling characters, the film ends up feeling like a pile of snapshots scattered on a table in need of captions to make them tell a story.

Yes, Silver's documentary background gives him an ability to convey the immediacy and multi-faceted nature of the dangerous trips to the townships, looking for the "bang bang," but his film's narrative is too blurred to make us care about Greg Marinovich (Phillippe), Kevin Carter (Kitsch), Oosterbroek (Rautenbach) and Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld).

Silver is unable to make his ensemble cast gel, and doesn't seem to have a hold on the essential elements below the surface action adventure appeal of the story.

It's only when you strip a story down to its essentials that you can then proceed to take liberties with the facts and produce an adaptation that keeps true to the source.

The Bang Bang Club, despite its polished look and nostalgic recreations of fondly remembered places and people, doesn't show that it understands or cares about the bigger picture in the way that more interesting films about similar situations (Salvador, The Killing Fields, Welcome to Sarajevo) have.

In the book Marinovich and Silva did more than simply say "this is what happened". They were able to add the fundamental corollary necessary for their story to have impact, "and this is how it made us feel". The film seems to have paraphrased the advice of one of its own characters and says, "Why do you care? Just make the picture".

There is a connection to events that is missing here and that is partly due to the casting - Phillippe, for all his best attempts, can't match the power of the cameo performance by local stalwart Vusi Kunene as a father describing the death of his infant son - and partly due to an inability on the part of its makers to do more than simply recreate the already powerful, iconic, original photographs.

When some of these float behind the credits along with stills of the original Marinovich, Carter, Oosterbroek and Silva - they are the best thing in the film. Which proves the idea that some stories need to be told by those who lived them.

The film doesn't ever come to understand that the tragedy of The Bang Bang Club - the deaths of Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter - while on one level universal, is on another deeper level the result of the specific time and place in which they worked.

That hopeful, fearful, thrilling period when everyone was wondering like Bernoldus Niemand: "How do I live in this strange place?"