Shooting the Bang Bang Club

9 April 2009

Cape Town is usually the scene of many international film crews and A-list celebrities, but Johannesburg is catching up. Recently, the crew and actors of a new movie, The Bang Bang Club, arrived in the city to start filming.

The indie movie revolves around a group of four friends, all photojournalists, who recorded the violent, dying days of apartheid in and around the townships of Johannesburg in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The four friends – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva – became known as the Bang Bang Club.

The film’s director, South African-born Steven Silver, starting filming a week ago, and anticipates calling it a wrap by the end of the year. So far, he is happy with the way things are going. “I am extremely pleased with the filming – I couldn’t be happier.”

He describes the South African crew as “the best in the world”.

Silver is primarily a documentary maker who has a law degree from Wits University. His first film experience was working on the six-part documentary series called Soweto. He then wrote and directed a short drama, Blink, which won an award at the Weekly Mail Film Festival. In 1997 he directed Gerrie & Louise, a documentary based on the truth commission, which won an Emmy Award.

Silver moved to Toronto, Canada, and directed several documentaries namely Boxcar Rebellion, Doctor’s Strike and The Anglo Boer War. His three-part series Machine Gun: History Down the Barrel of a Gun was aired on the Discovery Channel.

His feature documentary The Last Just Man, was based on the experience of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It won several international awards.

He then wrote and directed Inside Information, a feature documentary about a journalist covering the conflict in the Middle East, and The Soul of India, a documentary on the rise of Hindu fascism in India.

His recent work includes the feature documentary Diameter of a Bomb, Killer Flu, and The Dark Years, an innovative three-part animated documentary.

Hollywood actors

The Bang Bang Club stars Hollywood actors Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman and Taylor Kitsch. Phillippe plays Marinovich, Akerman plays a photo editor, and Kitsch plays Carter. Silva is played by South African actor Neels van Jaarsveld and Oosterbroek is played by South African-born actor, Frank Rauthenbach.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, written by Marinovich and Silva, the two surviving photojournalists of the Bang Bang Club.

Marinovich describes a scene in the first chapter of the book: “Earlier that morning we had been working the back streets and alleys of Thokoza township’s devastated no-man’s-land that we – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Joao and I – had become so familiar with over the years of chasing confrontations between police, soldiers, modern-day Zulu warriors and Kalashnikov-toting youngsters as apartheid came to its bloody end.”

Marinovich describes how he got shot in the chest, but also how Oosterbroek was fatally shot in the same township confrontation. “The boys were no longer untouchable, and, before the bloodstains faded from the concrete beside the wall, another of us would be dead.”

Silver identifies with the story. He said in a recent interview; “I identify with people who journey to unusual destinations and who return with unusual stories. That’s their job and it’s a service I provide as well.”

Silver has been working on the script for the six to seven years, and has written 18 drafts of the script. The movie is to be a feature film not a documentary.

Death of Oosterbroek and Carter

Two of the Bang Bang Club members died shortly after the transition to democracy. Oosterbroek was shot dead in Thokoza township in Ekurhuleni in 1994, while filming a bloody encounter between hostel dwellers and the National Peacekeeping Force. He died on 18 April, nine days before the country’s first democratic elections.

Oosterbroek was the chief photographer of The Star, and won the World Press Award in 1993, the SA Press Photographer of the Year award in 1989, 1991 and 1994.

“Ken was a larger than life presence, an intricate personality and a wonderful talent,” wrote fellow journalist Louise Marsland of a 10th anniversary exhibition of his work in Johannesburg in 2004. “His untimely death in the crossfire between hostel dwellers and a South African peacekeeping force was a great tragedy.”

Some 16 people died in Ekurhuleni townships at the same time as Oosterbroek was killed. Marinovich was wounded in the crossfire.

Carter committed suicide in July 1994, after winning the Pulitzer Prize in March 1993. The winning, iconic picture was taken in Sudan, and recorded a vulture sitting ominously behind a painfully thin child. There has been speculation about whether the photograph and the questions raised by it led to his suicide.

Silva and Marinovich

Silva, who has been working in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past six years, now works for the New York Times, while Marinovich does social documentary work, and is working on two books. Marinovich won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1990 Soweto picture of a man hacking at the burning, crouching figure of another man, with a panga.

Both have been called in to consult on the making of the film, and so far both are happy with the production.

Marinovich says Silver is doing “an amazing job”.

“He is trying to keep many of the scenes as close as possible to the original,” adds Marinovich.

Being on the set, which includes Nancefield Hostel in Soweto, brings back a lot of memories of the time for Marinovich. Silva says that 15 years later, the memory is still raw. “It is not traumatic, but I feel very flat and somewhat depressed.”

Marinovich says that film extras include people who lived in the hostels at the time, and newcomers. Scenes have to be re-shot to capture the violence and drama because the extras often burst out laughing, perhaps in disbelief of the times.

Silva says that, as a photojournalist, there are times when he wants to burst into tears. “It won’t make a difference – it is always an emotion that won’t go away.”

Marinovich recalls taking photographs of the hostel men at the time, who wanted to pose with their weapons, in a “bizarre studio shoot”.

“It was amazing theatre,” he says.

The book was published in 2000, and the contract for the film was signed in 2002.

The club didn’t exist as a formal club, says Silvo. It was labelled the Bang Bang Club by Time magazine, who picked it up as The Bang Bang Paparazzi from an article in another publication.

Filming will be taking place in Johannesburg’s central business district, Soweto, Sandton, Melville, the Magaliesberg mountains, and in the Ekurhuleni township of Thokoza. The first scenes are being filmed in The Blues Room cigar bar in the Village Walk shopping centre in Sandton, which has been transformed into Jameson’s, a popular bar in Commissioner Street frequented by journalists in the 1980s.

Source: City of Johannesburg