‘Bang Bang Club’ loses fire

Cast of The Bang Bang Club (Handout)

Cast of The Bang Bang Club (Handout)

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:31 AM ET

Any pictures you saw in newspapers or magazines about the last days of apartheid in South Africa were probably taken by one of the members of the Bang Bang Club.

The four combat photographers known by that collective name were in the thick of the action in the 1990s, capturing the carnage involved in the struggle for power and providing images for the rest of the world to see.

Their story was first told by two of them (Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva) in a book called The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War. A new film based on that book outlines their experiences in the violent atmosphere that led up to the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Thrilling stories; mediocre movie. It happens.

The Bang Bang Club is centred on Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe), who turns up as a freelance photographer looking for regular work through the Johannesburg Star. His way of showing his commitment is to take shots of the dead from very close up after skirmishes between Inkatha and ANC supporters.

He then walks into the Inkatha workers' hostel in Nancefield to hear their side of the story and talk the feared workers into letting him take their pictures -- even as they kill a man.

Back at the newspaper, he gives his shots to the photo editor (Malin Akerman) and becomes part of a group -- yes, the Bang Bang Club -- that includes Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach). Their nickname comes from an article written about the photographers; 'bang bang' was local shorthand for episodes of shooting and violence.

Their forays into the thick of tribal chaos are woven into a story that tries (but does not succeed) to show the moral dilemma of taking photographs on the front lines of any battle. When do you stop taking pictures? When do you help the victims? What is the long-term psychological effect of wading into battle zones and snapping photos of the dead and dying?

Here, for example, is Kevin Carter, struggling with a drug problem and winning a Pulitzer Prize for his picture of a starving child in Sudan being stalked by a vulture. The photo, and what he did or didn't do for the child, comes back to haunt him.

Trouble is, you're not emotionally engaged enough to care. The photographers wander through fields of carnage and pass through scenes of bloodshed and hysteria, but what they feel is rarely transmitted to an audience. You never forget that you're watching a movie, especially during the clumsy and misplaced romantic scenes between Akerman and Phillippe.

There's not much background or context offered in The Bang Bang Club and the scenes sometimes do not connect in any way that makes sense. The end result for a viewer is confusion and indifference.

The Bang Bang Club played here first at the 2010 Toronto film festival last September. The following month, Silva was taking pictures in Afghanistan when he stepped on a land mine and was severely injured.

liz.braun@sunmedia.ca


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