'The Bang Bang Club,' Tim Hetherington, and Bearing Witness

Photojournalists put their lives in danger so that suffering in the world and the courage of our soldiers might be less invisible

Thursday night, a picture called "The Bang Bang Club" made its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca film festival in New York. The film is based on a book of the same title, the 2000 memoir of two photojournalists - Greg Marinovich, played by Ryan Phillipe, and Joao Silva, taken up by Neels Van Jarsveld - who, together, comprise half a quartet of photojournalists - the Bang-Bang Club - that rose to renown in the early 1990's amid the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa. Two won Pulitzers during the span. One, Kevin Carter, played terrifically by Taylor Kitsch, committed suicide before the story ran its course, and another was gunned down amid township violence. The real Silva lost both legs last October while shooting for the New York Times in Afghanistan. Rich material, to say the least.
It is bitterly ironic that the film finds its way to theaters days after the world lost Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two of its more talented and intrepid war photographers. Hondros's final images from Misrata, where he was killed on Wednesday, are stunning, flame-filled frames. Hetherington's documentary, "Restrepo," filmed with Vanity Fair's Sebastian Junger over a ten-month deployment with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, the so-called valley of death, is the single film that the American public most needs to see.

@TimHetherington: "The question is, how do we get people to engage w/ ideas of conflict? How do we get people to think about Afghanistan?" August 23, 2010 [1]

Hetherington's mission, like Silva and Marinovich's in the townships of South Africa two decades before, was to beg the world's attention. In the last year, the devastation in Japan; the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square; and the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, have reaffirmed that words and grainy cell phone images have the tendency to fall short amid the cataclysmic. Rugged and daring shooters, no matter the proliferation or quality of digital cameras, remain our eyes to the world - the startlingly few capable of photos so jarring that we, atop couches and porches, can nearly smell the flame.

@TimHetherington: "I think the most important thing we present is an intimate portrayal of soldiers. #Infidel http://ow.ly/2HRnt." September 30, 2010

The US has been at war for the last ten years, and for most of that decade - the present moment included - the war has remained removed from the collective conscience. The burden has been met by a narrow few, and their silent suffering is matched by profound frustration with the silent majority's indifference.

@TimHetherington: "We are making so many images, but we aren't actually connecting these images...We aren't mining it enough to make it into audiences' minds." August 16, 2010

Last March, Marine General John F. Kelley, who had lost his son to a landmine in Afghanistan four days prior, gave voice to their frustration:

"Their struggle is your struggle," he told the ballroom crowd of former Marines and local business people. "If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight - our country - these people are lying to themselves. . . . More important, they are slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation."
"They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs and even their lives," he said.
"We are in a life-and-death struggle, but not our whole country," he told the crowd. "One percent of Americans are touched by this war. Then there is a much smaller club of families who have given all."

Hondros, Hetherington, and Marinovich ran into the flames so that we might all bear witness, so that suffering of the world and the courage of our soldiers might not remain silent. But if we look the other way, or worse, if we look but then remain silent, we fail them and their work.
General Kelley, when later asked to clarify his speech, said:

"I just think if you are against the war, you should somehow try to change it," he said. "Fight to bring us home."

Hetherington and Junger's "Restrepo" remains apolitical; it is a portrait, bent on conveying the experience of war and no other agenda. But in several places, the film forces its viewers to question whether the US military has the skill set required to win over hearts and minds in the isolated and backward Korengal Valley. Ironically, the US military has since abandoned the valley, and the Wall Street Journal reported in early April that Al Qaeda has returned and built training camps there.

@TimHetherington: "Understanding what motivates soldiers...will...help us determine what we can & cannot reasonably expect from them... http://ow.ly/2HRau." September 27, 2010

Though the professionalism of the 101st as a fighting force is never questioned in "Restrepo," scenes in which soldiers are required to act as diplomats are another story. As Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress noted at the Carnegie Institute this week:

"Be clear and understand what your force is capable of doing... we demand a lot of our 19 and 20 and 21-year-olds. In one moment, we want them to be fierce warriors, willing to kill, able to kill... and then we ask them to flip a switch and also be social workers, and do a range of things... we ask so much of these younger men and women, and we don't equip with them with all of the tools we expect them to have in implementing very sophisticated campaigns."

Tone and posture matter a great deal in diplomacy, and though the elders of the Korengal valley may not have understood the disrespect accorded by soldiers who spoke at them as if they were unit mates - pronouncing, at one point, "what you don't understand is that I don't give a fuck," - the tone hides little, and, in the film, the soldiers never build a rapport of any degree with those whose hearts and minds they are charged with winning.
Perhaps the most startling moment of the film comes when a villager seeks compensation - $400 for a cow that was killed after it become entangled in the base's barbed wire fence - and is only offered the cow's weight in other goods. In a war that is budgeted to cost $119 billion in 2011, one wonders if that $400 Korengali cow might have been one of America's better investments in 2007.
If you want the unfettered and raw feel of charging into the flame without getting burned, you'd be well served to see "The Bang Bang Club."  You'd still be better served to spend an hour and a half in the Korengal by way of Hetherington's viewfinder.
Ironically, "Bang Bang" falls prey to the very strength of photojournalism. The director was too wedded to truth, to capturing history as accurately - rather than as compellingly - as possible. The narrative thus lacks a rhythm, and we never feel the arc of a full story. We're instead left with a number of snapshots - the intensity of moving through riots and gunfire, of trying to persuade one man not to light another on fire while frantically snapping photos.
But, as Hetherington, Marinovich, Hondros, Silva, Capa, Nachtway, and many others have shown us, single frames can be strikingly powerful compared with the majority of media we consume each day. "Bang Bang" is no different.

@TimHetherington: "My work is about trying to get us to understand that we are connected and trying to build bridges and understanding between people." August 27, 2010

[1] These tweets are from Hetherington's twitter feed.

"The Bang Bang Club" opens on Friday in New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington; Seattle; and San Diego and Irvine, Calif. "Restrepo" is available on DVD, or at the iTunes store.