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The Bang Bang Club – Steven Silver interview (exclusive)

The Bang Bang Club, Steven Silver

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Steven Silver talks about some of the challenges about directing The Bang Bang Club, a new film based on the real-life experiences of four photo-journalists covering the tribal violence between Inkatha and ANC supporters in the early ’90s.

He also talks about recreating some of the iconic photos in the actual locations they took place and working with actors such as Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch. The Bang Bang Club is released on DVD on Monday, October 3, 2011.

Q. When did you know you wanted to make a feature film of The Bang Bang Club rather than a documentary, which is your background?
Steven Silver: I optioned the book before there was a book. I came across the story while shooting another film in South Africa and someone had shown me the Time magazine article on Kevin Carter’s suicide. I then looked up Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, the surviving members of the Bang Bang Club, and spent some time with them. At that point, they had a fairly detailed treatment for what would subsequently become the book, so I optioned the life rights and the rights to what would become the book, The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War. I don’t think anyone at that time thought the book or the film would get so much attention.

Q. The deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya certainly cast a shadow over it during the film’s US release…
Steven Silver: Well, not so much over-shadowed it, it was more that their tragic deaths re-cast the film in an entirely different context. I think the combination of the film premiering at Tribeca within a couple of days of Tim and Chris’ tragic deaths shone a light on photo journalists and what’s involved in the work they do.

Q. Much of what went on in South Africa at that time remained unknown to the majority of residents in the country until the global attention brought by the photos. How aware of it were you at the time?
Steven Silver: I was a little different. I was a student activist from when I arrived on campus. I became president of the student movement there in 1991, so I was at a number of the events described in the book, and so I have quite a strong personal connection to that time in South African history. In many ways, this film was a way to revisit that past.

Q. How difficult was deciding what to fictionalise in terms of making it more cinematic as opposed to sticking rigidly to fact?
Steven Silver: I think that was one of the most difficult challenges… finding where to depart from the truth. I mean, if you had held too closely to documentary record, you were going to get an accurate film but it would be one that was better served by a book or a long essay. However, if you departed too far from truth, then you’re in danger of losing the connection to the very compelling history that really anchors the story. So, it was a balancing act that really only ended right on the last day we could make a change to the film.

The Bang Bang Club

Q. How was recreating some of the iconic photos taken by The Bang Bang Club quartet?
Steven Silver: One of the most surprising things about recreating those moments was how alive history continues to be and how fresh and raw it is for people who lived in those communities. One of the very early decisions I took for the film was to shoot in the exact locations where events took place – and I’m not talking about just being in the same city, but literally in the same street and block where they took place. Now, one of the benefits of doing that and one of the reasons the scenes are so powerful is that the extras are people who lived through those events.

So, the extras in my film are not acting, but remembering. No one had to be taught how to charge, sing, dance, or chant because within the last 15 or 20 years everyone had lived through it. So, that was very good for the film. But recreating those events was difficult. We spent quite a lot of time negotiating with how to deal with the fact we were recreating traumatic moments on the very doorsteps of the places where they’d taken place.

Q. Does that mean you had counsellors on-set?
Steven Silver: Not so much on set, but we certainly had counsellors available to the communities and we made sure long before we began shooting that everyone knew what we were doing. They had a very clear picture of what we were going to re-enact, so kids didn’t end up on set when they shouldn’t be. Ninety per cent of what you see in the film are events that actually happened. But I remember doing one scene, where they [the photographers] come across a massacre after arriving at daybreak. I made that up. I knew massacres had taken place, but that particular field was just around the corner from one of the next locations.

But as we started to film, a woman started to scream and when we went to find out what was wrong, we didn’t realise but people had actually died on that exact field and there had been a massacre in that field. So, when she came out, it was like stepping back into history. And she started to wail. So, we stopped shooting while she was taken care of. But we genuinely thought we were making that scene up, which just goes to show how much of what happened probably still remains unknown.

Q. Do you think there are still tensions among those communities? Or has there been healing since?
Steven Silver: I think there has been an enormous amount of healing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while flawed, was an important process for the country in that it gave people who had never had a voice previously the chance to tell their stories of what happened. There are many people who fought battles, who really helped South Africa liberate itself, who were then not taken care of inside the new South Africa – particularly some of the young people you see in the film defending their townships from attacks. So, that lost generation is a very tragic casualty of Apartheid. A lot of the crime we see in the country comes from the ranks of people who at that point were defending their townships.

Q. How closely did you work with Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva as you were filming?
Steven Silver: They were on set every day, reading drafts of the script and seeing cuts of the film. Well, they were there almost every day… sometimes it was just too difficult. But they were enormously helpful to me. But in the end it’s my film, so it’s success we share but the faults are my own.

The Bang Bang Club

Q. Have they seen it? What do they think if so?
Steven Silver: They’ve both seen it more than once. And I’ve received different responses depending on when they’ve seen it. On the one hand, this is very familiar to them because they lived through the events depicted, but on the other it’s my interpretation of their lives – much the same as any subject whether it’s a documentary or a film. So, it can be quite strange and quite difficult for them.

Q. Did you speak to them at length about the mindset they need to do their job? I mean, the film juxtaposes how they’re able to witness a massacre one moment and party the next, as if intoxicated on the high of it all. Is that accurate?
Steven Silver: Yeah, they talked a lot about their fear and how it’s not that they don’t feel fear, but are able to cope with it better. Some people have a different capacity to deal with that fear. Greg and Joao are certainly able to manage it better than someone else. They function more effectively.

But I don’t think they’re wired the same way as the rest of us. There have been studies shown that these kind of people are psychologically good at being able to deal with these situations when the bullets start to fly – they react to danger differently to the way we do. They can process decisions more effectively, they have better peripheral visions, and they can better asses where the danger is coming from. They can also process information more efficiently than we can, whereas we might panic they can still make sense of what is happening.

Q. How has the film been received in South Africa?
Steven Silver: Very well. It’s had an amazing reception in South Africa, which is very satisfying to me. I mean, it’s going back home, so obviously it matters a lot.

The Bang Bang Club

Q. How nervous were you at the premiere and when did you know it was going to get the reaction you had hoped?
Steven Silver: The premiere was in Johannesburg and, of course, I was very nervous because it was my home audience, so it mattered very much. But I knew that it was being received in the way I had hoped when the reviews came out. There were one or two bad ones, but on the whole the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Q. Can you speak about the casting of Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch? They give amazing performances…
Steven Silver: Ryan and Taylor are great. Ryan is a real professional and he really shows up. This was a very difficult shoot. It was done on a budget of $4.5 million in 30 days, which by any standard is a low budget. So, this was a film without the trappings of Hollywood and each of the actors needed to show up and make it work with the rest of us, which all of them did without exception. And for that I’m very grateful.

Q. How hard did they have to work on their accents, which are very convincing?
Steven Silver: We had a great dialect coach in Fiona Ramsey, who worked with all three of them. But listen, a South African accent is very difficult to do and they worked very hard to pull it off.

Read our review of The Bang Bang Club