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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Bang Bang Club: The Feature

OK, it has been way too long since I updates this here blog but I should have quite a bit of material for you over the next few days, including a roundup of almost all the films released this week and last. But first, here's a feature article I wrote about the new South African/ Canadian co-production with some notes on the film's history and a number of quotes with some of the talent involved.

Check out the published article at with links and nice pictures and all but here is the original article that I wrote...

The Bang Bang Club: A Fresh Look At Some Familiar History And The People Who Captured It.

Based on the book of the same name, The Bang Bang Club tells an unfamiliar tale about a very familiar time in South Africa's history. The years leading up to the South Africa's 1994 general elections 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 South Africa's state of emergency, whose fearlessness to walk into life-threatening situations allowed them the opportunity to capture, in grim 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.” Samuels is no doubt far from alone in his reaction to the events depicted in the film.

Though, at least during the time they were occurring, 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 and now for his portrayal of 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 every where? It was interesting to me because no one here saw those pictures.”

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 a couple of years ago, 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 documentary filmmaker bought the rights to the book even as it was being written, after a meeting with its authors.

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” and 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 correct actors to bring these real-life characters to life.

The casting process had its ups and downs, most problematic being finding the correct actor to play the tragic figure of Kevin Carter. As Lance Samuels put it: “It was a rigorous casting process. We audiotioned 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 Band Bang Club], 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 hasn't done much at that time. He had done Friday Night Lights and one or two small parts and I remember Steven watching him and saying “Oh my God, this Kevin! That's him!” and then of course Frank and Neels were first choices by far. We wanted them, we went out with them and we were very lucky to get them.”

To further ensure that the film's palpable authenticity, the film was not only shot it on-location in Johannesburg but also features respected veteran photojournalist, Alf Kumalo, who said of the Bang Bang Club that “they were my buddies. I worked with them a lot”, both in a cameo role in the film and as a consultant. 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”.

It's worth mentioning here that on 23 October 2010, Joao Silva stepped on a landmine while on patrol with American soldiers in Arghandab, Afghanistan and, despite the best efforts of medics on site, he unfortunately lost both legs below the knee. He has since worked hard to recover his mobility by making tremendous strides with a pair of artificial legs that allow him to walk again.

Since then the film has shown in film festivals all over North America, including getting a prestigious gala showing at last year's Toronto Film Festival, which, as seemingly everyone 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”.

Coming up next, reviews of The Bang Bang Club and the new, terrifically entertaining horror film, Insidious.

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