The Bang Bang Club: Our dark history through a lens

2011-07-20 18:22
Ilan Preskovsky
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.


  • Yoni - 2011-07-20 21:37

    "South Africa's violent past comes into sharp focus in the dramatic retelling of the final days of apartheid... revisiting the 'bad, old days'." Oh yes, nowadays everything is so perfect! I'm so glad we're rid of the bad, old days when we had proper roads to drive on, stable electricity supply, produced enough food for all and ministers resigned or went to jail when they broke the law. If I remember correctly one of the Banged Up Club idiots got shot by one of the so-called Bluehelmets, officially known as the Peacekeeping Force or something to that effect. Isn’t it ironic to think that that was only the beginning of the low standard of law enforcement we became accustomed to...

      suzy - 2011-07-21 12:31

      Sjoe Yoni, what a towering intellect you are with an unbelievable insight into the history of this country. What a pity we can't all be like parents must be sooooo proud of their little darling. Maybe if we had better law enforcements back in the day all four the "idiots" could have been shot and we could all live happy little lives in the dark just like you.

      Snoopy88 - 2011-07-21 13:22

      With one big difference... now we know what's going on (for the most part and for the time being) and don't get our sanitised stories from the Government Information Centre. In journalism class in 89 we were told that you can't report it or photograph it... Even if the tanks are rolling in the townships.. It didn't happen. All those people calling for stricter media control... This is where its going. They want a blackout so that you won't know. Freedom of Press is always the first to go!

      Joepublic1 - 2011-07-22 07:48

      Love you Yoni , all off us are sick and tired of these screwballs , make money and scr@w the people ..........

      chez - 2011-07-22 10:26

      You must be white and priveledged. Did you never drive thru a "location" in the 70's? The white people had good roads and food because that is where all the money went. Your ignorance is frightening! Did our ministers really never do anything wrong? No land grabs by them? How do you know? Remember that one could be jailed just for saying something bad about "die groot krokodil"? No memory of that huh????

      Jakkals - 2011-07-23 13:40

      Goeie ou dae. Apartheid was net goeie buurmanskap. Goeie paaie, goeie skole, wit universiteite waar daar geleer is en nie gestaak en stukkend gebreek is nie. Wit kinders kon saans speel in die strate. Geen hoe mure en elekrtise omheinings. Geen kapings en plaasmoorde. Skoon parke en blomme en nog blomme langs die strate. Toe kom die invallers. Soos 'n plaag trek hulle in die skoon ,veilige, woongebiede in. Hulle eie plekke kon en wou hulle nie SELF iets aan doen nie. Nou bemors hulle die strate, loop en breek als af, Lewe saam met klomp maatjies in een huis en vorm bendes wat die strate oorheers en al wat loop besteel. Roof en moord daagliks. Eie skole is bemors en afgebreek. Nou moet hulle die wit skole ook inval en oorheers en afbreek en onveilig maak. En so kan ek aanhou en aanhou. Te treurig om in 8 jaar eens jou eie muur om jou toilet self te bou.

      schmerz - 2011-07-26 10:09

      @chez, say we were neighbours. First of all, notice how we both live in separate houses because we both have our own families. Second, notice how we pay our own bills and not each other's bills, I'm not responsible for your lifestyle. I decide to build a swimming pool. You burn down my house because I didn't build you a pool. WHY DON'T YOU BUILD YOUR OWN F@#$%@ POOL INSTEAD OF DESTROYING MINE, IDIOT The only explanation is that you are too inept to accomplish anything substantial on your own, in fact, so inept that your only option is to take someone else's stuff. You fail to realise that white money is not from a bottomless pit, it comes from somewhere called - hard work. I hope you understand afrikaans because you need to read what jakkals said.

  • Rygar - 2011-07-20 21:40

    here here Yoni well said spot on !

      chez - 2011-07-22 10:30

      @Yoni. Please for the lvoe of God, get out of our country. The man was photographing a country in crises. there were lots of starving children around him and not being a doctor with numerous bottles of drips in his hand, there was ntohing he could do? What did you do? Did you at least report was was going on? Did you go over and help the chidlren? Did you give lots of your white money to help?

      Jakkals - 2011-07-23 13:43

      Chez Wat het julle vir julle self gedoen??? Behalwe om al julle treurigheid en onvermoe op apartheid en die witmense te pak. Julle sal altyd slawe bly. Slawe van julle self. Ons wittes het vir ons wit geld gewerk. Julle swartmense staan bakhand en bedel vir als.

  • Alexis75 - 2011-07-21 10:13

    Yoni - your cynicism and disrespect for a man for a man who died in the line of fire is to be marvelled at. You must be proud

      Yoni - 2011-07-21 18:54

      Yeah? And you probably admire the idiot who rather made a buck out of a picture of a starving black child with a vulture next to her instead of saving her? No wonder he snuffed himself out later, or was it some other issue that made him do it? I've got no respect for liberal journo's pretending to be tough. Like they say, when the going gets tough... How many of them stuck around in South Africa?

  • preshengovender69 - 2011-07-21 10:36

    Why are South African movies always Apartheid and AIDS ? PS The chick in the pic is quite FIT.

      Charles Small - 2011-07-21 12:32

      Check the movie Watchman... In that movie sh's in a tight superhero suit! YOWZA!

      Snoopy88 - 2011-07-21 13:24

      War always gets romanticised. We so desperately try to rewrite the story.. to give it some meaning. When its never the truth, just someone's perception of the events.

  • Limpopoist - 2011-07-21 12:01

    It shock me when are taking look(goinh though pages) of Porn Magazine,that is where I found these shocking story from journos

      Snoopy88 - 2011-07-21 13:25

      what are you smoking, and where can I get some? Also these porn magazines?

  • Mouse - 2011-07-21 14:59

    BORING..... Yawn zzz...............

      Snoopy88 - 2011-07-22 14:35

      Somehow I don't think a bomb under your ass would move you lol

  • sipholess - 2011-07-21 17:20

    Black on black violence, black south africans dont need white folk to fight with, they have been fighting one another for a long time. The rest of the continent must be an indicator.

      cerveza - 2011-07-21 21:47

      @sipholess - you know what is interesting, just over a hundred years ago white people came all the way to the bottom of Africa to fight other white people, then 40 years later they went to other parts of Africa and and Europe and fought other white people side by side. It seems it does not matter what colour people are, they will fight each other. The whole world is an indicator of that

      Snoopy88 - 2011-07-22 14:37

      yeah just look at the way South Africans are now treating the nationals from coutries who took the exiles in during apartheid... Short memories! And the disrespect for coloured people - what not black enough for you now?

  • MJ77 - 2011-07-22 14:50

    Yawn,yawn,yawn - Are these too lazy to find a real job neanderthal's really going to be re-enact a cliche'd subject. GET REAL!!!! find something new to harp on about.

  • Lauren Hess - 2011-07-22 15:40

    Oh joy. A movie review (albeit one that concerns South Africa's violent past) gets turned into yet another boring debate about our current society. There's even a little good ol' racism thrown in! For once, can it not just simply be the film and the quality THEREOF that's debated?

      sipholess - 2011-07-26 04:52

      When in the military we ended up having to protect the likes of Joao Silva and co in the townships while the ANC cadres were hacking pieces out of the Zulus, so yes Lauren, while you were warm and cosy in your bed at night some of us were knee deep in all the shit that you did'nt want to know about !!! Boring, perhaps not.

  • BigAl - 2011-07-26 08:05

    BAD BAD PAST…….So were tribal wars and very savage with it. So are todays wars murder – rape – savage killings – muti – violent police – corrupt politicians – high jacking with savage violence – I would have to type all day to fill the list. So get your cameras out and show the world what it is like today…..A WAR ZONE.

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