The Bang Bang Clubby Kavish Chetty / 27.06.2011
The accent is always the first marker of something amiss; that we’re not in our world, but in the twilight zone of American fantasy. Blockbuster cinema has never been able to get the South African accent right. Let’s not rehearse any number of critiques against DiCaprio in Blood Diamond. The chief instigator of linguistic butchery in The Bang Bang Club is undoubtedly Taylor Kitsch who plays photographer Kevin Carter. To him, the South African accent is the equivalent of Benicio del Toro getting punched in the mouth and then reciting beat poetry. It’s utterly remarkable. Malin Akerman (of The Watchmen) who plays Robin Comley is at fault, but not as comically: her take is pseudo-British. Now, to make up for this sighing chasm which South African viewers will immediately pick up on, the script-writers have slathered local slang all over the film. Like pancake make-up applied to fresh bruises, it’s pretty obvious they’re trying too hard. Whole sections of dialogue can be reduced to the following: “Inkarda Freedom Pardy bru / bru Inkarda chaana / chaana the Inkarda bru kak chaana bru Inkarda / Inkarda kak chaana kak.” This kind of semi-mesmeric pastiche of dialects and colloquialisms caused a great deal of dialogue to be eclipsed by the laughter of myself and fellow-cinema goers. Just get it right, motherfuckers.
This possibly minor detail is a great inroad into understanding the primary fault of Bang Bang: the fact that it appears indifferent to its subject matter, a politically charged 1990s South Africa. The focus here is on converting a juicy moment in world history, chock-full of cultural capital, into a cinematic playground – where four hotshot photographers take reckless trips into Soweto to snap black-on-black violence, then head to the local bar afterward for a casual and easily-procured fuck.
Which half-arsed liberal out there in the world doesn’t know the name ‘Mandela’ and doesn’t take South Africa as an allegory for smooth reconciliation processes and perfectly-oiled melting-pot cosmopolitanism? History and the moral complexities of war-photography (if you’ll admit the phrase in this context) are clearly not the focus of this movie. Employing another skirmish-scarred African country to ratchet up the adrenaline quotient on a rather average blockbuster is. Can you imagine the collective erection of a production committee who see the chance to slap “based on a true story” in the first two minutes’ of a film’s opening credits? Jackpot, yo.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. The Bang Bang Club was an informal name given to a group of four frankly reckless (or courageous) South African photographers who ventured into dangerous local territories around 1990-1994 in search of “bang bang” – or basically, photographs that captured the violence and aggression concealed from the national dailies. Their names were Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek, Greg Marinovich and João Silva. Most of these are familiar. Two were Pulitzer prize winners; one committed suicide after the infamous photograph he took of a vulture (apparently) stalking a starving Sudanese child; one was killed in action; another was shot a modest total of four times before retiring. The film is based on an autobiographical work written by the surviving two, Marinovich and Silva, called The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War.
So there really are two ways in which we can approach this film. One, as being a blockbuster with a documentary function, in which case it’s invested with all sorts of responsibilities. Two, as a plain old-fashioned blockbuster, that just happens to have precedents and referents in real life. I propose we take the latter route, to avoid haggard comparative analysis here between book and film. To give you an immediate idea of the divergences between the two, in the opening pages of the book, the authors write that the name Bang Bang Club “gives a mental image of a group of hard-living men who worked, played and hung out together pretty much all of the time. Let us set the record straight: there never was such a creature, there never was a club, and there never were just the four of us…” Later on, they write of what should be this film’s (and is part of the book’s) intellectual appeal: “[O]ne of the strongest links among us was questions about the morality of what we do: when you press the shutter release and when do you cease being a photographer?”
The first admission gets pulped before your first regrets at ordering a slush puppy. Basically, Marinovich (Ryan Phillipe, ex-Cruel Intentions) just runs into the other three while on duty. He’s scoping out black hostels for prime shots and after an incongruously welcoming reception from the Zulu, he gets his yield – a beaten and stabbed Xhosa dude. The backdrop of the film features the seething tensions between ANC and IFP (the latter egged on with governmental support) and hence much of the action setpieces are focussed on violent township encounters between Xhosa and Zulu. After Marinovich gets his shots, he scoots over to The Star – and it’s a short journey from there to fucking the pictures editor and hanging out in bars with the Club. This formula is the primary thrust of the film’s narrative: first get the pictures, then bring them back and deal with office drama, then go out and get shitfaced and shagged (in that order). The dominating link between the photographers in the first half of the film is very much a cavalier attitude and camaraderie. This is clearly not true of the accounts of in the book, but the film has them pictured as pretty much adrenalin-junkies who like to stick their necks out on the line for good snapshots. Their mood is very much celebratory, not contemplative.
It’s only later on once Carter picks up his drug addiction that there is the potential for a shift in portrayal. But dramatically speaking, the film lacks the emotional fallout it should produce. Sub-average acting contributes to this. The themes of journalistic responsibility and ethics start to creep out at acute angles, but they remain very much hinted at and not interrogated. When a media personality first suggests calling the group “Bang Bang Paparazzi” (before “Club” was settled on), Silva lashes out at him for making them sound “like vultures”. But this precise metaphor is the frustrated and depressing aspect of photojournailsm which the film elides. When Carter took that picture of the vulture stalking that Sudanese kid, were we not looking at two degrees of vulture-dom? The photographer preying on the vulture preying on the kid? I’m not saying that I agree with this, because journalistic responsibility is a fully more complicated phenomena. But it’s clearly not a subject which translated well to cinema.
So when you strip away all the excesses of historical accuracy and responsibility and documentary and moral complexity, you’re left with another blockbuster. The Bang Bang Club is by no means a bad film, it’s just not accomplished enough in any department to warrant superlatives. It glosses over moral complexity in favour of action and sex. And in this sense, the film makers commit themselves to the same portrait of the photographers they depict. In the middle of a battle, someone asks “what the fuck is going on?” to which one of the photographers replies, “who cares? It’s Bang Bang!” Is this not the same logic as the film maker? Who cares about what’s actually going on here politically and historically? It’s bang-bang, motherfucker; more bang for your buck.