Fact: American’s have been more or less uninterested in contemporary films about war (at least those that don’t find the military battling aliens). Whether it’s because of the sensitive nature of the current situation in the Middle East or the genre itself treading water, it’s hard to fill a theater with a movie focusing on controversial topics such as rendition and stop-loss. However, movies about wars of the past, and those that center their narratives on characters rather than politics (Saving Private Ryan, Inglorious Basterds), have generally performed well, with World War II and Vietnam-set stories accounting for some of the most emotionally and philosophically stimulating motion pictures ever made.
So when TriBeca Films releases The Bang Bang Club, Steven Silver’s frenzied feature about four real-life photojournalists who documented the final days of apartheid in South Africa amidst horrific violence, it may be banking on the intrigue of a largely unknown quarrel and the friendship between these young men to help drum up interest in the indie release. Set between 1990 and 1994 in the period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the inaugural South African elections, the film dramatizes the urban combat that rocked the shanty townships of the country and the camaraderie between Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter, who threw themselves in harms way to show the world what was happening to their homeland.
Brushing over the sociopolitical causes and effects of the conflict, The Bang Bang Club (titled after a moniker that the press gave them) is really about the photographers: artists inspired by the nobility of their craft and driven by a need to deliver truth. We learn about the disturbing events of the time through their eyes as they experience exhilarating highs and devastating lows while the characters simultaneously learn about themselves and develop a deeper love for their art. Their photography, which won Marinovich and Carter Pulitzer’s, is infused within the frames of the picture, partially blurring the line between fact and fiction and giving it a wonderful dynamic that you don’t often see in war films. Most associate battle with bloodshed, and there’s plenty of it in The Bang Bang Club, but Silver also shows us the beauty of capturing a moment in time and the ethical weight his protagonists shouldered as they created award-winning portraits of unflinching reality at the expense of others misery. It’s heavy stuff, but the director supplement’s his film with enough fluff to keep it both entertaining and informative.
In a morbidly ironic turn of events, the movie hits theaters just two days after Restrepo director and noted combat photographer Tim Heatherington was killed in Libya. Whether or not the parallel between his life story and this one brings more people out to see it is anyone’s guess, but with a glitzy, young-Hollywood cast including Ryan Phillipe, Taylor Kitsch and Malin Akerman, I expect The Bang Bang Club to get some decent audience attention.