Bang Bang Off Target

Hollywood gets war reporters wrong again

The Bang Bang Club, written and directed by Steven Silver; starring Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Akerman, Frank Rautenbach, and Neels Van Jaarsveld | Tribeca Film | 106 minutes

In a key moment in the recent film The Bang Bang Club, South African war photographer Greg Marinovich, complaining of thirst, dashes past snipers to fetch Cokes across the street. As the daredevil, eluding bullets, slides back with the drinks like a man scoring a home run, his comrades chortle.

It’s an eye-poppingly cinematic moment, even if it didn’t quite happen that way. The real-life Marinovich did take a calculated risk during a lull in shooting in search of a soda, but figured that he could make the run in safety, having done so many times before. His colleagues would not have been so amused if he had risked his life over a drink, and in any case most of the time Marinovich operated with greater caution.

So it goes with The Bang Bang Club, which is based on the memoir that Marinovich wrote with João Silva, the two survivors of a quartet of young white lensmen who drove into black townships to chronicle factional fighting in the final days of apartheid. The film depicts the photographers as reckless thrill-seekers, swaggering into newsrooms like rock stars and canoodling with babes, when not jumping into cars to chase “Bang Bang” (violence). Bad stuff happens—one guy, Ken Oosterbroek, dies in crossfire and another, Kevin Carter, commits suicide. Marinovich takes a bullet and almost perishes. But the lasting impression is that these were adventurists who profited off others’ misery.

As it happens, Marinovich, Silva, and company were hardly callous opportunists who cared only about getting the big pictures. Nor did they enjoy nearly half the amount of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that director Steven Silver would have us believe. I know because I worked with Carter as a member of the Johannesburg press corps in the early 1990s. Marinovich took pictures at my wedding and Silva shot the cover of my first book. Yes, all of us to some degree were out for careers and money, and all of us lived off adrenaline. But the reporters and photographers stationed in South Africa at the time were also compassionate human beings who exposed themselves to danger because they wanted to record history. This doesn’t particularly come through in the film.

Instead, Silver plays to the Hollywood stereotype of journalists as heartless outsiders. After a fun day taking pictures of black people massacring each other, the lads go back to the white suburbs and party—the implication being that the bloodshed is a game to them. He doesn’t get that these photographers cared passionately about their country, and that they exposed themselves to hazard not for kicks but to document the amazing political transformation taking place.

The film is the latest Hollywood production to get the role of the conflict correspondent wrong. With rare exception, cinema glamorizes and simplifies war, and it also simplifies the role of the journalists who cover it. To test the theory that screenwriters consistently misrepresent combat correspondents, I took a look at several seminal features made over the past four decades, including The Green Berets (1968), Apocalypse Now (1979), Salvador (1986), Under Fire (1983), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Killing Fields (1984), and We Were Soldiers (2002). Watch one or all and you’ll come to the same conclusion: war correspondents are misguided souls or narcissists with dubious codes of ethics.

Perhaps the worst extreme is Dennis Hopper’s crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now, a man so drugged one marvels he can hold a camera. The cynical hacks depicted in Salvador, Under Fire, and The Year of Living Dangerously don’t fare much better on the sympathy scale. Redemption only comes when these neutral observers take sides. On screen, in such tours of Vietnam as Full Metal Jacket, The Green Berets, and We Were Soldiers, journalists actually pick up arms. The lead in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) proves his humanity by smuggling a girl out of Bosnia. Under Fire’s Nick Nolte goes so far as to fake a photo to save the revolution. Never mind that real reporters would get fired for that.

More disturbing, the silver screen belittles the idea that documenting history is not necessarily inferior to actively participating in it.

“Many of us believed in the value of what we were doing, bearing witness to the killing in the townships,” author and television producer Hamilton Wende told me, when asked about the motivations of white cameramen in South Africa. “God, I still can’t believe some of the terrible things I saw and filmed. I lost count long, long ago of the number of bodies I filmed, but as shocking and frightening as those deaths were, our filming them made a contribution to their not having died in vain.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a moral force in the fight against apartheid, acknowledged as much in his introduction to Marinovich and Silva’s book: “We owe them a tremendous debt for their contribution to the fragile process of transition from repression to democracy, from injustice to freedom.”

The book resonated for Silver, who came of age in South Africa during the depicted events. In the film, he is at his best when he sticks to reality, striking gold in painstakingly authentic recreations of township hostilities. The advancing warriors who wave machetes and guns felt so real that I broke into an anxious sweat remembering what it was like. The director filmed in the exact locations where skirmishes took place and he hired extras from the actual communities, which meant that they were not acting but reliving events.

And yet, verisimilitude notwithstanding, the political story gets lost in the film. What the viewer sees are black people slaughtering each other, without context for understanding that the future of South Africa hinged on stopping the brutality. In fact, the white supremacist government was supporting Zulus who were fighting Nelson Mandela’s supporters. The Bang Bang Club sought to expose this travesty, yet you don’t get a sense of their mission from the film. Nor do you get a sense of their ultimate sobriety of purpose.

The film flubs other details, too. Silver portrays photographer Abdul Shariff as a rookie who begs to work with the white guys and then naively stands up in the line of fire. “It was incredibly false and it makes me cringe,” says Tom Cohen, a former Associated Press reporter who was nearby when Shariff died running for cover. “To take a man who had built his own portfolio covering apartheid and present him as this green kid who calls Greg ‘sir’ and is too dumb to duck fire is amazingly demeaning.”

Other colleagues chafed at the way Silver took liberties with the lifestyle. The guys are shown living it up in bars with hot chicks hanging over them whenever a prize or paycheck rolls in. While war reporters are notorious for womanizing and getting stoned, in both films and real life, in this case only Carter abused substances and the other three photographers were in committed relationships. Any drinking tended to be done morosely at home as the men tried to make sense of the complicity in documenting savagery. Marinovich’s on-screen affair with photo editor Robin Comley, well, that never happened, so I suppose the character is meant to provide requisite box office steam. She’s certainly not believable as a photo editor. The scene where she expresses horror that Marinovich is coolly adjusting the lighting over a corpse is ludicrous.

Of course, as a feature film The Bang Bang Club has to pull in audiences, and flesh means entertainment. As Silver explained to me, “This is not a news story.” He went on to quote Norman Mailer, who at one point said an author has a privileged relationship with the truth. “When you have to condense time and characters, it’s about the essence of the story,” argued Silver. “You hope that comes through.” It doesn’t.

What’s most surprising about Silver’s perspective is that he comes from the world of documentary filmmaking. The Bang Bang Club is his first foray into features, and he dramatizes the choices the protagonists made while leaving the audience to judge whether they should have intervened to save lives. He hints at voyeurism while recreating the macabre images that won Pulitzers for Marinovich and Carter—the former of a man hacked and burned to death, and the latter of a vulture stalking a starving girl in Sudan.

Carter, in fact, was so tormented by critics’ assertions that he should have whisked the toddler to safety—again, not our job, and there were aid workers nearby—that he alluded to the girl in his suicide note just months after winning the prize. Many viewers I spoke to left thinking Carter was right to feel bad. I disagree. While many of us have chosen to save a life at times, it is not our primary mission to intervene. Our role is to provide evidence of what we see; to convey reality without getting involved.

To depict the neutral journalist as somehow morally inferior to aid workers, doctors, and other non-combatants is a one-dimensional reading of a complex situation. In fact, many journalists cover conflict because of a sense of moral indignation. The Bang Bang Club members in particular were not parachuting into a foreign country; they were South Africans disgusted by their government’s inhumanity. The act of bearing witness and placing oneself at risk in trying to make some sense of the horror is work deserving of a more nuanced treatment. It might depict Marinovich’s friendships with blacks in the townships, something that comes out in the book but not the movie. Or maybe it would show the discipline required to get up every morning at 4 a.m. and face the unspeakable with professional calm (which should not be mistaken for lack of compassion). Only Carter is given a soul in the movie, yet all four were principled human beings.

The movie stops in 1994, the year Mandela was elected president in the country’s first democratic vote. But the correspondents’ lives today are ever shadowed by the ones they lived during that time. After taking some of the iconic images of South Africa’s tumult, the two authors went on to cover conflagrations abroad, although violence eventually sidelined them both.

After being wounded by gunfire four times, the last in Afghanistan, Marinovich finally swore off combat eleven years ago. He’s made peace with peace and much prefers to shoot documentaries about traditional African customs and spend time with his kids, now aged four and six. He is working on another book, about a murderer who married his mother.

“Suddenly it all catches up,” Marinovich told me. “You put all these barriers between yourself and suddenly the reality is there and it’s not a bubble any longer. I got wounded so many times, once critically, that I no longer thought, ‘Well it’s not going to happen to me.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, time for something different.’ ”

Like most writers of memoirs that have become movies, Marinovich “disassociates” himself from the film version. “It has the same title but it is not the same story. It’s not my life. I don’t see the character as me.” Yet choosing his words carefully, he absolves Silver of responsibility to him. “Filmmakers and writers don’t have to stick to the facts.”

Silva is facing a harder time adapting to civilian life. A misstep in a minefield in Afghanistan last October blew his two legs off below the knee and he has undergone more than fifteen operations to repair his bowels and urinary tract. When I visited him in May, Silva could only move on his prosthetics with a walker or metal bars, and many days was too drained by repeated infections to get out of bed. Doctors expect him to remain in Washington DC’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center until the end of the year, separated from his wife and two young children in South Africa.

The day we met, Silva had just attended a photo shoot with New York magazine for a spread on war photographers, and the irony was not lost on him that this time he was on the wrong side of the camera. “I don’t want a future taking studio portraits with lights,” he said resolutely. “I want to get back in the field.”

A nurse entered with an x-ray machine and a cup of pills. Silva reached for a bottle of water but it dropped and rolled away on the floor. I waited for an awkward beat to see if he wanted me to pick it up. With a resigned face he nodded, “Yes.”

It was a quiet drama, nothing like racing past snipers. But it sure carried a punch.

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Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia School of Journalism. She is a veteran foreign correspondent. Her third book, No Friends But the Mountains, about impoverished mountain people, will be published next March. She is also the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.