Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Bang Bang Club

I no longer remember who suggested to me that I watch this film, but I trusted that person enough to do so, with mixed results.

The Bang Bang Club tells the true story of four white combat photographers in South Africa in 1994 during the last days of apartheid. During that time, one would suppose the combat would be between the white government troops and the black members of the ANC, but the war in the film is between two black tribes, one of whom is the Zulus of the Inkatha Freedom Party which opposed the ANC.

Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Phillippe) is the fearless rookie photographer who gets caught up in the war and has the dubious opportunity to watch (and click) as each side brutally kills a member of the other side. One of these photos wins him the Pulitzer Prize.

Greg and his colleagues go where few would dare to go. Is it courage or insanity or do they have a death wish? They document the atrocities of humanity with an objectivity that’s scary, as if they can remain unaffected by the horrors they see. Is that possible? The film provides a mixed response, focusing on a man who is able to do this work for years, regardless of the toll it takes on him, but who is sometimes depicted as hesitating in a way that implies doubt, doubt about the morality or sanity of clicking away while someone is murdered in front of him. One of Greg’s friends experiences a moral dilemma much more profound and his life takes a very dark turn as a result.

What motivates these photographers? Surely it must be more than just the money or the glory. Surely they are risking their lives to share the truth in an effort to make the world a better place? The film does not do enough with that question, as it does not do enough with many other questions, like what was actually going on in South Africa that caused black people to kill black people when the primary conflict was between white and black.

The Bang Bang Club seems to want to take an objective stand on the war, refusing to get into the politics. Is that wise? We are left with no clear sense of what was happening in South Africa in 1994 and what role the government played in the events of the film other than that the police were quite hostile to the photographers. By showing the horrors of war so starkly, one can hope the film is at least trying to highlight the insanity and absurdity of war, but even that is debatable.

The acting is quite good, the cinematography is great (as one would expect in a film made by photographers) and The Bang Bang Club has a number of very powerful scenes. But it also has many lesser scenes, it flows awkwardly (with no clear sense of the passage of time) and it doesn’t do enough character development for a film that focuses on such intense characters. In the end, Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club is another flawed film with lots of thought-provoking potential. On the assumption that it is trying to say something profound, even if it fails, I will be generous and give it ***. My mug is up, but just barely.

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