Thursday, January 26, 2012

DVD Review: The Bang Bang Club

The Bang Bang Club **
Directed by: Steven Silver.
Written by: Steven Silver based on the book by Greg Marinovich and João Silva.
Starring: Ryan Phillippe (Greg Marinovich), Malin Akerman (Robin Comley), Taylor Kitsch (Kevin Carter), Neels Van Jaarsveld (João Silva), Frank Rautenbach (Ken Oosterbroek), Nina Milner (Samantha), Jessica Haines (Allie), Russel Savadier (Ronald Graham), Lika Van Den Bergh (Vivian), Kgosi Mongake (Patrick).

The Bang Bang Club were four white, South African photographers who went out into the streets and documented the chaotic end of Apartheid in their country. They garnered fame, because they would go where few others would. They won Pulitzer Prizes, seemed to attract the attention of numerous beautiful women, drank and partied too much, and seemed to have no real opinion on what exactly they were photographing. There is a real story here that could make for a great movie – but in The Bang Bang Club, it’s buried underneath too many clichés.

The movie opens when Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillipe), who is working freelance, heads out with his camera to try and capture the chaos that is running through South Africa. It isn’t long before he meets the other members – Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach), although they pretty much ignore him at first. It isn’t until he gets inside of the compound of the Zulu warriors, who are fighting against and sometime slaughtering supporters of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) that they accept him as one of their own.

What follows is a lot of male bonding, as we see these four photographers head out into the streets day after day to photograph the madness and violence all around them. They are constantly faced with danger, but they seem to thrive on it – they are adrenaline junkies more than anything else. They spend their off hours drinking in bars, and picking up women. The only woman that will snap into focus is Robin Comley (Malin Akerman), the photo editor of the Johannesburg Star, who the movie tries to make into a legitimate love interest for Marinovich. We see the photos they take – one of which documents the brutal murder by fire caught by Marinovich, which will draw the attention of the South African police, who want his film and for him to testify – because a crime has taken place. Instead of doing so, he hides out for a while, until his photo wins him a Pulitzer. He hides, because he doesn’t want him, and his colleagues, to become targets – because they are seen to be taking sides. Later in the movie, Kevin Carter will also win a Pulitzer, for a picture he takes in the Sudan – of a young girl, who is clearly starving to death being stalked by a vulture. When asked if he did anything to help the girl, he says no. That’s not his job.

These two photos obviously document real things going on in their respective countries, and as such have value, but where do you draw the line between being neutral and stepping in and taking some action? Marinovich clearly had reason to believe that if he stepped in, he himself could become a target. But what of Carter? Couldn’t he at least scare the damn vulture away? The movie raises these questions in only the most cursory of manners – it certainly has no opinion one way or the other.

And that essentially describes the movie as well.  If you know nothing about Apartheid going into this movie, you certainly won’t learn anything about by watching it. There is no discussion of the issues, no discussion of right or wrong. The movie is essentially about four white photographers who head out into the streets and take pictures of black people killing each other.

I was reminded of The Hurt Locker while watching The Bang Bang Club – and the comparison does this film no favours. The Hurt Locker was an Iraq war film stripped of politics that showed its soldiers as little more than adrenaline junkies – who do what they do not because of anything greater than the fact that they are addicted to it. I think that probably describes the members of The Bang Bang Club as well – clearly they are not doing their job because of any moral or political leanings, and they take one risk after another, daring each other to go farther than any would go on their own. Yet, I think perhaps The Bang Bang Club is too close to its subjects to see them clearly. The film is based on a book by the two surviving members, and as such, I don’t think it ever really questions their actions – it simply accepts their version of events. The fact that writer/director Steven Silver felt he needed to add a romantic subplot – that is wholly unconvincing – doesn’t help, and neither does the fact that the actors don’t really add much to the proceedings (Taylor Kitsch maybe a fine actor, but I don’t think he was up for the role of Carter, which is clearly the movies most demanding). You could make a good story about these four photographers – but The Bang Bang Club isn’t it.

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