In the final years of apartheid, four South African photojournalists went to extraordinary lengths to capture the horrors of poverty and violence in images that made international headlines.
“The Bang Bang Club,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, documents how they bore witness to the traumatic events of 1991 to 1994 leading to the end of white minority rule in South Africa.
For South African director Steven Silver, who now makes his home in Toronto, the film was very personal and close to many of his own experiences with the anti-apartheid movement.
“I’ve been working on this film for many years. Almost a decade I’ve lived with it. And I’m not ready to say goodbye to it,” Silver said in an interview with Reuters.
The film focuses on rising tensions and fighting during that time between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party in which thousands of people were killed in the run-up to the country’s first all-race elections.
While a number of photographers worked alongside the “club,” the group was made up primarily of Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Phillippe), Kevin Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (played by Frank Rautenbach) and Joao Silva (played by Neels Van Jaarsveld).
Marinovich, who won a Pulitzer for his image of a burning man being attacked by a machete, and Silva, were on set for nearly all of the 30-day shoot last year.
“We’ve had a long history and a long journey together,” said Silver, who first optioned the rights to their life story about 10 years ago after meeting with Marinovich and Silva, before the two photographers’ book by the same name was published.
For Marinovich, Silva and many others, reliving the events — nearly all filmed in their original locations — was difficult.
‘TOO MANY MEMORIES’
“There were days where they were on set and had to leave, because it resurrected too many memories,” said Silver, adding that both photographers admitted to showing signs of post-traumatic stress in the period after the film shoot.
The real Robin Comley (played by Malin Akerman), a photo editor close to the photographers, collapsed in shock during a visit to the set after seeing Rautenbach portray Oosterbroek. Silver recalled her saying, “‘It’s like looking at Ken.’ It’s like we brought him back to life.”
Oosterbroek was killed in cross-fire just days before the 1994 election that marked the end of apartheid.
Silver said research showed that physiologically, combat photographers were “wired” differently. But that did not make them better equipped to deal with the aftermath, said Silver.
“South Africa’s history is not only alive and well, it’s very raw for the people who live it,” he said, adding there was pressure to tell the story right.
He recalled that during one shoot, a woman came out of her home and screamed. The crew was filming a massacre where 40 people had died, but in this case, decided not to film in the original location. What filmmakers did not realize was that an even bigger massacre of 150 people had taken place in that field.
“This woman walked out of her house and she walked out into a flashback, to an image she had seen 15 years ago,” he said.
Locals also came out and showed the cast and crew old magazines that carried photographs Marinovich had taken of the scene they were in the middle of filming.
Some residents ended up playing themselves in the film. Silver said he had been asked why his extras were such strong actors.
“I explained that they’re not acting, they’re remembering.”