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.”