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The Bang Bang Club: Our dark history through a lens

2011-07-20 18:22
The Bang Bang Club
Based on the book of the same name, The Bang Bang Club tells a true but unfamiliar story about a very familiar time in South Africa's history. The years leading up to the first democratic general elections in 1994 have been well documented in history books and films, but those events have never been dealt with quite like this.

The Bang Bang Club of the title refers to a group of four photojournalists, working during the most violent days towards the end of apartheid in South Africa, whose fearlessness when covering life-threatening situations allowed them the opportunity to capture, in grim and vivid detail, the shockingly brutal, government-stoked Xhosa-Zulu conflict that was happening at the time – to the total ignorance of much of the country, thanks to the government's mighty propaganda machine. As Lance Samuels, one of the film's South African producers put it: "I lived through that time... I lived literally ten minutes, fifteen minutes down the road from where this was happening and I had no idea what was going on." Undoubtedly Samuels is not alone in his reaction to the events depicted in the film.

REVIEW: The Bang Bang Club

At the time, it was South Africans who knew even less about the war going on around them than the international community. As Frank Rautenbach, the actor perhaps best known for his portrayal as Hansie Cronje in Hansie (2008), and now for his portrayal of Bang Bang Club photographer Ken Oosterbroek, tells it: "[In the early 90s] I was playing rugby in France, which kicked off a three-year stint in Europe and while I was there all their photographs were on the front pages of the [European] papers and I remember calling my parents and saying to them, 'Are you OK, there's a civil war going on!' And they were like 'What are you talking about? We're having a braai with our friends around us.' And I said, 'Have you seen the papers, people bleeding and dead everywhere?' It was interesting to me because no one here saw those pictures."

'A beautiful performance'

The publication of the book by Bang Bang Club members Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, did bring this story to a wider audience; most notably South African university students. Neels Van Jaarsveld, who plays Joao Silva, recalls: "When I was in varsity in the late 90s, it was a famous book at my res and we used to pass it around and lots of people used to read it so it became quite popular." Before even this happened, though, Steven Silver, an acclaimed South African documentary filmmaker, bought the rights to the book even as it was being written, after a meeting with its authors.

From left: Lance Samuels, Steven Silver, Frank Rautenbach and Neels Van Jaarsveld at The Bang Bang Club premiere in Johannesburg.

The Bang Bang Club marks the first non-documentary feature film for Silver, a transition that he admits to being "surprisingly difficult" but, as he put it: "My experiences gave me plenty of experience with storytelling." He acknowledges that his career as a documentarian gave him the ability to explore the film's tricky subject matter with an objective eye. With Silver in place, the film continued its slow journey to our screens, first by joining the money and experiences of Canadian production companies with South Africa's own Out Of Africa Productions, then by finding the right actors to bring these real-life characters to life.

The casting process had its ups and downs, most problematic being finding the perfect actor to play the tragic figure of Kevin Carter. "It was a rigorous casting process," says Samuels. "We auditioned a hell of a lot for all the parts and it was important to us that two of the four were South African actors. Ryan Phillippe blew us away with his audition [as Greg Marinovich, the film's point-of-view character and the last of the four to join the group]. It was just a beautiful performance.

"And then we struggled a bit with the Kevin character because Kevin was a hard character to play. He was the most dynamic, I think, of the four of them. And then we met up with Taylor Kitsch who hadn't done much at that time. He'd done [acclaimed TV series] Friday Night Lights and one or two small parts. I remember Steven watching him and saying, 'Oh my God, this is Kevin! That's him!' And then, of course, Frank and Neels were first choices by far. We wanted them, we were very lucky to get them."

Landmine explosion

To further ensure the film's palpable authenticity, key scenes were shot on location in Johannesburg townships and the film features a cameo by respected veteran photojournalist Alf Kumalo, who also served as a consultant on the film. "[The Bang Bang Club] were my colleagues... my buddies. I worked with them a lot," says Khumalo, who owns the Historical Photographic Museum and Institute in Johannesburg still freelances for The Star.

The two surviving members of The Bang Bang Club, crucially, were also very involved in the filmmaking, staying in constant contact with the filmmakers and actors. Van Jaarsveld, in particular, enthuses about the support he got from the real-life Joao Silva: "Joao was so supportive. I hurt myself while filming and I got a call from Afghanistan from him, he called me from one of those ticky boxes." 

On 23 October 2010, Joao Silva stepped on a landmine while on patrol with American soldiers in Arghandab, Afghanistan, and subsequently lost both legs below the knee. He has since worked hard to recover his mobility by making tremendous strides with a pair of prosthetic legs that allow him to walk again.

The Bang Bang Club has shown at film festivals all over North America, including getting a prestigious gala showing at last year's Toronto Film Festival, which, as seemingly everyone involved in the film was proud to point out to me, means that it was selected from hundreds of films to be one of the fifteen spotlighted at the festival.

It's a fine, important film that will hopefully receive a similar reaction here in South Africa. As Samuels is quick to point out: "People overseas watch this and are amazed about a part of South African history that not many people knew about. South Africans will also watch the movie and find out things that they didn't know about."  
* The Bang Bang Club opens at South African cinemas on 22 July.

South Africa's violent past comes into sharp focus in the dramatic retelling of the final days of apartheid as seen through the lens of four fearless, hard-living photojournalists who collectively became known as The Bang Bang Club. The people behind the movie talk about revisiting the 'bad, old days'.

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