I have watched various movies about how war affects the soldier, how they return sometimes physically and psychologically scarred but I have never watched one about combat photographers and how being at the centre of conflict affects them. That is until I watched "The Bang Bang Club" an engrossing, captivating dramatization of 4 photographers who during the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa became known as The Bang Bang Club because of the danger they put themselves in at the heart of the violence. Now as a dramatization it bows to certain conventions, a romantic subplot surrounding two characters occasionally distracts too much and dilutes the sheer visual power when we have the action and violence re-enacted. But even so it is a fascinating look at the lives of these photographers and how they are forced to change, to become cold to what they see in order to do their job.
So as already mentioned "The Bang Bang Club" is about these combat photographers in South Africa between 1990 and 1994 and is adapted from "The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War" which was co-written by Greg Marinovich and João Silva, 2 of the members of the bang bang club. It basically takes us from Greg's first meeting with the other photographers where as a rookie he was inexperienced through to, well I will let you find out for yourself. What we see is how these photographers change and how they deal with what they witness especially Greg as his character is pretty much the main focus.
What is interesting about this is how the characters change and we see that there is a buzz being in the heart of the violence, taking photos as men wield knives around them and getting them one photo which will bring them acclaim. But we also see how they become cold to what they witness, how in order to do their job they can't take a personal interest in the victims or question who is right or wrong. And as such we see how some of them deal with it, resorting to increasing drug use to keep themselves numb to the death and destruction they photograph. It is surprisingly compelling and exciting as we watch Greg and the other photographers becoming almost extreme in the danger they place themselves in and oblivious to how different they are to others as the blood shed doesn't deter them.
Now why this works is because of director Steven Silver who manages to make "The Bang Bang Club" feel like a documentary crossed with a drama and in doing so giving us a story and characters to follow rather than feeling like observers which is often the case in pure documentaries. It is also the fantastic cinematography of Miroslaw Baszak and the action scenes such as when Greg is photographing a man being burned and beaten is breathtaking as it not only sickens you but also excites you because you can sense the danger. And there are many more none more so than an incredible scene featuring a father who tells Greg the emotional story of what happened to his wife and child, it is a scene which not only brings you to tears but also highlights how emotionally detached these combat photographers have to be to get the photo.
Not all of it works and in creating a dramatization which shows the affect on the photographer's personal lives there is a romantic subplot surrounding Greg and editor Robin Comley which may be factual but it feels a bit too much of a romantic cliche. But these are minor moments in what other wise is a compelling movie with equally compelling performance with Ryan Phillippe showing what a talented actor he is. It is Phillippe's lead performance as Greg which takes us on the journey from rookie, to emotionally cold photographer to the point he begins to question the nobility of what he does as it comes into question whether photographers should be helping the victims they photograph. Phillippe is not alone as Taylor Kitsch, Neels Van Jaarsveld and Frank Rautenbach all deliver equally brilliant performances giving us a different take on how these photographers cope.
What this all boils down to is that "The Bang Bang Club" is a fantastic movie about the combat photographers who came to be known as the bang bang club. It might disappoint some as it is not a look at Apartheid but it is a compelling and interesting look at these men and how they coped and sometimes didn't with the death and destruction they photographed.