The Bang Bang Club stars Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch as two members of a group of four war photographers covering the struggle between the Apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela’s ANC in early 1990s South Africa. A gripping examination of what it takes to work in such extreme conditions, the film is especially relevant in today’s world in which we seem to be seeing more armed conflict. The Film Review caught up with the film’s director, Steven Silver.
Spoiler alert: The last two questions of the interview contains spoilers.
What elements of the story interested you in particular ?
I’m South African originally and I came of age during that period, so I’m a little bit younger than the photographers were at the time. I was a student activist and lived through a number of events that are described, not in the film, but in the book. So, I have quite a strong and intimate connection with that period in South Africa, for me personally it was a way to revisit that past without doing something autobiographical.
The story itself was fascinating, because like a number of my other films, it was about ordinary people who put themselves in the middle of unusual events. This was a chance to get a look at what the life of a photo-journalist is like and how they put themselves in harm’s way and what it takes to bring those images to the world at large.
Do you think this is the sort of film that could only be made by a South African?
No, I don’t think that. I brought something to it because I am South African, but also I am a bit too close to it.
Early in the film, a Zulu leader explains the reasoning of Inkatha supporters – they were fighting the ANC because the ANC wanted Zulus to strike, but the Zulus were poor and simply wanted to work. Can film bring out the complexities of a situation like this?
I think that film isn’t necessarily the best medium for bringing out the subtleties of what was going on between the ANC and Inkatha at that time. For me it was just important that Inkatha was not cast as the crude villains of the piece and that they were given a legitimate narrative and that you understood their point of view.
The [ANC] comrades are youths who are ordering them about, while the Inkatha migrant workers come from traditional communities where young people are not meant to order adults around. So, I tried to give voice to those feelings in the film. One because it was accurate and two because I think it was important to the film that this is not a simple case of good guys and bad guys.
The other thing for me, the Zulu migrants who got caught up in Inkatha’s political battle with the ANC were the ‘oppressed of the oppressed’, they were primarily peasants who had been forced out of the rural areas to come and work in the mines in large cities like Johannesburg. They were put in these hostels where they would live for most of the year, they were completely disconnected from their families and urban cultured life. They were the perfect pawns both for Inkatha leadership and the South African government who were quick to use them to create violence against the ANC.