TriBeCa 2011: Cast of THE BANG BANG CLUB
by Sanela Djokovic
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Just a day after journalists Tom Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Libya on April 20, the cast and director of The Bang Bang Club joined one of the real-life subjects of the film in a press conference at the TriBeCa Film Festival to discuss the film and its relevancy, South Africa and the moral dilemmas combat photojournalists face.
The Bang Bang Club, also the title of the book the film is based on and the name given to a group of South African combat journalists (Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Kevin Carter, and Ken Oosterbroek), connected by passion and purpose, by a mission to capture moments of merciless atrocity during the dying days of Apartheid so that the world could know of them too.
Some of these photographs still live in the minds of people all over the world and have garnered Pulitzers for Greg Marinovich (portrayed by Ryan Phillippe) and Kevin Carter (portrayed by Taylor Kitsch), and in the film these photos and the moments they capture are brought back to life. Director Steven Silver, a renowned South African documentary filmmaker making his feature film debut with The Bang Bang Club, not only shot on location in the townships near Johannesburg, but made sure to shoot on the exact same streets where the shots were originally taken.
“Ninety percent of the locations are exactly where that event took place. What that meant was that the communities in those locations lived through those events and not that long ago,” says Silver.
Silver, who comes from a South African Jewish community and was an anti- Apartheid activist, could identify with the photographers and was especially interested in the story of Kevin Carter, whose photograph of a vulture stalking a starved Sudanese girl made him famous. Carter took his own life in 1994, not long after Ken Oosterbroek was shot and killed.
In fact, Silver chose not to make a documentary, because of Carter’s absence: “I wanted to see him living, breathing, walking, doing what he did.”
Carter’s absence meant that Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights), who lost 30 pounds for the role, had to draw from different sources for authenticity, but he welcomed the challenges, “On a personal level, I think if you can pull something like this off you’re gonna grow as an actor and as a person,” says Kitsch. “Its a dream role really, as much as it is taxing on you mentally and physically.”
Ryan Phillippe, however, had Greg Marinovich on set almost every day, which was at times more fascinating for Marinovich, who had to watch his life happening again in front of him. “Sometimes I’d be watching Ryan interact with my late friends,” say Marinovich. “Quite disturbing and quite interesting. Quite complicated.”
Phillippe says he didn’t enter the project with any trepidation, because he was excited by the challenge and was more concerned with honoring the men they were portraying and shedding light on their contributions. “These photographs really did kind of educate the world in a lot of ways as to what was happening in South Africa at this time,” says Phillippe. “I think the importance photographically still exists, but the importance was greater in that period of time. TIME Magazine was the world’s window into situations like the fall of Apartheid.”
As an actor, Phillippe was also excited to tap into the mental state of photojournalists covering war. “The idea that you would willingly place yourself in such direct potential harm without protection— There’s a mentality there that I don’t think a lot of people can relate to and that I was fascinated by.”
The fact that The Bang Bang Club was a Canadian/South African co-production meant that two of the leads had to go to South African actors (Frank Rautenbach as Oosterbroek and Neels Van Jaarsveld as Silva), two had to go to Canadian actors (Malin Akerman as Robin Comley & Kitsch), and they had the liberty of casting one American— Phillippe. While, there were concerns about accents, everyone agrees that the essence of the characters shine through.
Akerman, Kitsch and Phillippe all fell in love with South Africa. Akerman was happy to be allowed to immerse herself in the lives of the people living in the townships. “They have one-tenth of what we have, what we get to enjoy on a daily basis and they are ten times happier, ” says Akerman, “I think anyone who goes there will leave a little piece of their heart there.”
Kitsch says the film could not have been shot anywhere else and is another character in the film. ” If you can’t put yourself in the moment,” Kitsch says in regards to shooting on location, “you got some more work to do.”
Phillippe also spoke about the energy of South Africa: “There’s something great about a country still reshaping its identity, something so alive about that.”
Regarding the moral debate about whether combat journalists should opt to help the people they are shooting rather than just take pictures director Steven Silver says, “The film is very careful not to come down on one side of that or the other. And, I don’t think there is a simple answer to that.”
In light of the deaths of the two journalists in Libya, everyone agreed that journalists should be protected, but Greg Marinovich adds he understands how people perceive them: “How much sympathy are we due? Not much, I suspect. Its terrible. Its upsetting. Those were terrific guys, but we do go there voluntarily and I think that has to be bourne in mind.”
The Bang Bang Club opens in theaters in New York, L.A., Chicago and Irvine on April 22.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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