The Bang Bang Club fizzles (but you should still see it)

By Theresa Mallinson 10 August 2011

If you're still deciding on whether to see “The Bang Bang Club”, stop dithering and get to a cinema before its run is over. For all its faults, it's a film on which every South African should have a firsthand opinion. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva published “The Bang-Bang Club” in 2000. The story of how these two photographers, together with Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek, chronicled township violence in the 1990s – and the price they paid for it – instantly became a classic in the genre of combat journalism memoirs. That said, don’t make the mistake this reviewer made, and re-read the book before watching the film. (Do read it again, but only afterwards.) The book provides much-needed context that the film lacks, but if you’ve read it too recently, it’s hard not to get hung up on the minute, and not-so-minute, changes to the storyline.

Films that are “based on a true story” are given a curious licence to play fast and loose with the facts, an approach that’s frowned upon in the literary world. Look at how much fuss was kicked up at James Frey’s fabrications in “A Million Little Pieces”, but it’s pretty much accepted that films depicting real-life events won’t stick strictly to the truth.

Does it matter? If the changes are the sort that help create a stronger storyline, then maybe not. The problem with “The Bang Bang Club” is that this isn’t the case. The biggest fictional addition was the relationship between Greg Marinovich and Robin Comley. (In case you’re wondering what the truth is, she’s mentioned three times in the book, and always in the context of her job as picture editor at The Star, not as a romantic interest. At the time, Marinovich was involved with an Austrian journalist called Heidi Rinke.)

Thing is, if you’re watching the film as truth, and later discover that parts of it aren’t true, other details are then called into doubt. After I’d explained to a friend that the romance was a fiction, several hours later, when I thought the conversation was long forgotten, he suddenly piped up: “Did Kevin Carter really have a show on Radio 702?” He did, as I was able to reassure my friend. But, if it had been a non-South African friend, perhaps they would’ve felt the need to question other, more fundamental aspects of the film: “Was it actually so violent?”or “Did people really get necklaced?”

Watch: The Bang Bang Club trailer

And there are several instances when details in the film aren’t correct. As Philippa Garson pointed out writing for the Mail & Guardian: “What bothered me most about ‘The Bang Bang Club’ was the distorted depiction of Abdul Shariff, who was caught in the crossfire and shot dead in Katlehong in January 1994. He is portrayed in the movie as a gawky young novice who eagerly asks to join the Bang Bang Club. After the group reluctantly allows him to tag along, he is killed in a gunfight in a graveyard in Soweto. In reality Shariff was an experienced and respected photographer who would never have asked to join the Bang Bang Club! It was irresponsible to portray him in this way.”

Tinkering with the truth would probably have been more easily forgiven if the film had succeeded as a whole. But it lacks coherence. It feels as if the photographers are running from one township skirmish to another. Granted, it was a crazy time and, in some measure, that’s what was happening, but the context of early 1990s South Africa, and the raison d’etre for the four photographers’ work, is completely lost.

As a South African, and one who knows the story, it was difficult enough to follow what was going on – it’s hard to imagine overseas audiences making much sense of the movie. And it was at overseas audiences that the film was clearly aimed, with Ryan Philippe playing Marinovich, and Taylor Kitch playing Kevin Carter.

Overall, one gets the sense of an opportunity lost. If the movie had been constructed as well as the book was, it could’ve been looking at Oscars. Instead even its good points – like the cinematography – are overshadowed by the inevitable “but” any discussion of the film brings up. It’s particularly revealing that Marinovich (the real life one, not the Ryan Philippe version) is not giving interviews about the film. We imagine he has some pretty interesting views on it.

For all that, it’s still a film that should be watched – at least by South Africans, if not our friends overseas. The questions it brings up about our country’s past – how it is represented, and how we engage with it – are ones that we can all benefit from grappling with. DM

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