Ryan Philippe stars as news photographer Greg Marinovich in The Bang Bang Club, a role that required him to educate himself on international politics, tribal and civil warfare, media and survival in South Africa as apartheid ended. Marinovich represents a certain breed of reporter, the war photographer, who enters a battle zone and risks danger and death, in order to capture images to let the world know what is happening. Marinovich was one of four real life photographers who called themselves the “Bang Bang Club” as they covered South Africa during the tumultuous and violent mid 90s when Nelson Mandela was elected president and the country exploded in violence.
Film writer and director Steve Silver describes what happens to news people like Greg when they enter a danger zone to do a job – “Their peripheral vision widens, time slows, and they get very comfortable. They figure out where the danger is, get a strong spatial sense of what their place is in relation to that danger and do the job. Some are able to deal with that better than others.”
Phillippe told me in Toronto that he was able to learn from the best.
“I had the luxury of spending time with Greg who I play in the movie and Gilles Silver who is still the combat photographer for the NY Times in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is something that really piques my interest; these guys are thrill-seekers adrenaline junkies, they put themselves in situations that no rational thinking people would ever consider. That was really interesting to me, the blind commitment to their job and the fact that Giles who has been doing it for 15 years he’s never been shot in the line of duty. It’s amazing; he goes and embeds himself with the Taliban for two weeks and then the Americans for two weeks and so he’s literally living that at this very moment.”
Anne Brodie: What’s it like for news people who are not able to cross the “professional” border to help someone in distress whose photo they might be taking?
Ryan Philippe: I struggled with that. As a father and a sensitive person, it is hard not to getting involved or take some kind of action or let something unfold in front of you without influencing it. That was something that took a lot to understand psychologically. The sense I get is that Greg was in a couple of situations in this kind of job where he has had to, where it was too much for him not to take a stand or have an effect. That was one of the things that was most difficult to understand is how you let something happen in front of you without … I can’t imagine just standing back, but it’s part of the job.
AB: What was the toughest scene?
RP: The first beating you see in the film was so powerful because when we were shooting in the townships and using the local people in the same places. So the emotion was there. Not a lot has changed in those places, they look identical to the way they looked 15 years ago. It was clear to me that these people had memories that were still so fresh and they were re-enacting them. That scene crystallized for me what the film was that we were making and what people had gone through who had lived in these townships that are so dilapidated. That experience was very real for me.
AB: You’ve had plenty of experience being in front of news and tabloid cameras.
RP: Paparazzi, depending on your personality type, and every actor and celebrity is different, is tough. For me over the years because of certain negative things have come out, I flinch and look over my shoulder for cameras. Initially the idea of playing a photographer, some people could say I was exploiting people in peril and not to relate that to being famous and pursued by the paparazzi, but just that idea of an unwanted presence within a situation that should be otherwise private is something I’ve struggled with. It took time for me to understand that where some of these photos not taken in turmoil, in history throughout the world, there would be a certain level of ignorance that would remain, particularly with South Africa. The white press tends to ignore the skin colours so the fact that all this was going on and the rest of the world turned a blind eye or ignored it. That was changed by the fact that these guys went into the situation and took photographs that were wired around the world in a day when there wasn’t the immediacy of new media and the Internet. It was one of the only ways to get it out. You talk about Vietnam, and the napalm photograph, those images galvanized people in terms of engendering feelings and passions that might not have been stirred up had people not seen those photographs. I watched the documentary and there was something in that experience that turned me around how important the role combat photographers play in war and struggle. Then I kind of found a different appreciation and understood the impact of the job.
AB: You were initially concerned about taking the role?
RP: I didn’t have reservations about taking the part because of the story; it was more about my own personal resistance to the idea of what photographers represented to me. That selfless journey you take as an actor where you remove yourself from the story or part you’re playing, you see it from an untainted perspective.
AB: Did you find resistance as an American playing a well -known South African?
RP: There was great respect for the four photographers in South Africa; their stories are required reading, there was a lot of support for the movie and two of the four of us are South African actors and we were benefited from that, learning what it was like growing up in that part of the world. Working in South Africa and Johannesburg, it gets under your skin. It’s a place I want to take my children back to, a place that filled me with joy and inspiration and also sadness. It’s one of the most complex places on the planet. As an actor I was drawn to the drama it represents. So I read the books, Mandela’s biography, historical novels and really tried to understand what it was like to be there when the country was taking shape. It’s still happening but I think the most pivotal point in that process took place when our film does. It was important to me to get a better grasp, my cursory knowledge of apartheid and SA in the early 90s. I didn’t feel I had enough information so I did my best to educate myself.
AB: How has news gathering changed in South Africa since Greg started working?
RP: We live in a time now where instantaneously if something happens its brought to the masses immediately, but I do think that there was a period of time where the view in media was so myopic in the U.S. or Great Britain where there is so much going on at home and we’re so wrapped up in the plight of our own country that has its ups and downs. I feel certain parts of the world were ignored. I don’t feel that’s as much of an issue now because the world has gotten smaller by virtue of the new media.
The Bang Bang Club opens May 6 in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. It expands to Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Ottawa on May 20.