Any photographer who works in a war-torn region knows that each day could result in his or her own death. That’s a truth that turned into tragic reality earlier this month when photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed while covering the ongoing unrest in Libya. And it’s a truth that writer-director Steven Silver attempts to convey in the now unintentionally timely The Bang Bang Club, a film based on the real lives of four investigative photographers who captured the violence in early 1990s South Africa, one freeze-framed image of atrocity at a time.
Silver’s attempt — based on the book The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War, co-written by two of the photographers depicted on-screen — meets with tepid success. While he does a fine job of visually embedding his audience with his point-and-shoot protagonists, allowing us to see what they see as they snap pictures mere feet from where men are being murdered, there’s something undeniably inert about the whole affair. The film does not persuade us to care as much as we should about Greg Marinovich, the character who serves as our primary window into this world. (In real life, he is the co-author of that aforementioned book.)
When we first meet Marinovich (played with reserved commitment by Ryan Phillippe), he is an ambitious photojournalist, who isn’t afraid to lean in for close-ups as the blood drains from the body of an African National Congress supporter just stabbed by a Zulu enemy. Yet he still maintains a sensitive side, a need to pause, catch his breath and contemplate before coldly capturing the dissidence and death that surround him.
It’s a decent narrative arc, but one that looks like a speed bump when compared with the more dramatic curvature found in the story of fellow ‘Club’ member Kevin Carter. This is the guy The Bang Bang Club should have been about. A gifted photographer, a man with a crippling sense of guilt induced by his famous Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese girl, Carter’s life provides more compelling fodder for exploration.
Issues like: When does taking such photographs shift from good journalism to disrespectful invasion of privacy? At what point does the courage required to enter a war zone turn into an unhealthy, dangerous compulsion? What, as a radio interviewer asks Carter during the film, makes a great picture? “Maybe what makes a great picture,” Carter tells the reporter, “is one that asks a question.” Indeed, the film couldn’t be asking such provocative questions at a more appropriate cultural moment. It’s just unfortunate that it doesn’t move us more effectively while it’s asking them.
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