What The Bang Bang Club does have is potential, at least that is how it looks when you read about the subject matter of the auto-biographical film directed by Steven Silver (The Last Just Man & The Dark Years) and based upon the book of the same name, co-written by Greg Marinovich and João Silva who were two of the photographers who were part of a team of four men who became known as The Bang Bang Club between 1990-1994, taking iconic and shocking pictures in South Africa during the last days of the apartheid.
By potential, one can clearly see that there are several factors that should make this film deserving of a large audience. As director, Silver’s filmography has been based within the documentary genre and this is his first shot at a full feature film. When taking into consideration the different ways in which documentaries are made, I would have assumed that Silver would have carried over some of what he had learnt in the past to this film but in certain parts, it just seems as if he is trying to make a stylised point for the sake of it rather than acknowledge his roots in documentary filmmaking. Unfortunately the film hardly justifies the beauty of the landscape that the film has been made in and rather than fully explore the South Africa that the film is trying to portray in the images, it seems much more interested in exploring the faces of the actors on screen and the rather stale dialogue that comes part and parcel with the film.
When looking at the synopsis for this film on paper, it seemed somewhat appropriate to tell the story of these men and explore a small segment of the lives of these photographers who brought these photos to the world, the kind that very few people had seen before, and to give them justice for their art form. Again, on paper this film seemed like a celebration of photography, a look at apartheid from a different point of view. Rather than looking at the history books and listening to academics rattle on about the ins and out, this film wanted to look at the men who were at the front line. Pictures that were make world famous and shed a completely different light onto what was happening at the time. But once again, I felt the film was much more interested in a celebration of itself rather than concentrating on the photography that it was meant to be portraying. The Bang Bang Club for me carried itself based on the fact that it was a film, it seemed to jut about and be unaware really where to explore first. Which of the four men should have the greatest exposure?
Thus far, my review of The Bang Bang Club hasn’t been all that positive. The filmmaking side was weakly executed when it could have focused so much more on the photos that were taken at the time. It almost seemed like the audience were being brought back to square one, in a world where these photos couldn’t have been shown, we now have a film that was almost certainly not going to admire them any longer than it had to. It was too involved in focusing on the lives surrounding the men surrounding the photos instead of focusing on the photographs of the history that was taking place in front of their eyes. Once again, looking to the quality of the film from paper, it poses an impressive cast including Hollywood stars Ryan Phillipe (Cruel Intentions & Crash) and Taylor Kitsch (Snakes on a Plane & X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as Marinovich and Kevin Carter respectively. Compared to the other casting and the subject matter, the casting of these two left me quite confused and assuming that a large amount of time was pushed into making sure that an audience was aware that the film still had star billing. These two were quite clearly the main attractions throughout the film, with any possible technique that you could think of being pointed at them. They were handed star lighting at every possible moment, close ups and extended sequences where what happened to them seemed to be more important than the rest of the cast. More time was spend watching Marinovich’s relationship with Robin Comley (played by the gorgeous Malin Åkerman) who worked at the newspaper and did everything she could to publish their photographs than any of the other three men and sometimes I just wondered whether Phillipe was there just as a bit of an eye candy, something to lure a wider audience and something to make the production company happy?
Despite all this there was actually one completely redeeming factor in the film that, in my opinion would make me recommend the film to be watched once,and that is the overall sentiment of the last chapters of the film. Although the film followed these four men and what they went through to get their photos and to get them published in a part of the world where the media very much had its hands tied behind its back, a theme that I believe it should have carried all the way through was how these men worked during war and took photographs of these tragedies; they worked up close with many different sorts of people but they never once stopped to try and help, this was simply a job. As I say, as a theme, this should have been a moral question throughout the entire film but it didn’t appear until the end when Carter is placed under the spotlight by journalists about his photo of the girl and the vulture in the Sudan that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994 for. Rather than make it personal about these four men and whether what they were doing was correct, the film should have asked the question generally about working in conditions where you have to decide just how much input you can put into the world. Nothing is followed up.
Just before I round up, I do want to highlight one sequence that I thought was exquisite in the film and this was the burning of a man who was believed to be a Zulu spy. In terms of filming this horrific sequence, Silver manages to literally set the screen a light with a portrayal of a dying man that was both haunting and beautiful. The bright, burning, orange flames mixed with the creamy landscapes of the sand filled exterior made the sequence the highlight of the film and actually pose the question about the photographer’s involvement quite early on in the film (but it doesn’t reappear until Carter’s photo as I mentioned before). If he had done more of this, the film possibly would have been more successful.
The Bang Bang Club is out on DVD on Monday 3rd October released by Entertainment One and extras on the DVD include The Making of and Mongake Edit. Personally, rent the film and check it out once because the sentiment was in the right place but I don’t think there is enough in the 94 mins that made it a film I would watch again. If you are more interested in the story, I’d stick with the book and see it from the point of view of the men that were there.