Screening at the 2015 Audi Festival of German Films. For festival tickets and session details visit the official website HERE.
When Under Fire: Shoot Back! is a documentary following the career of the Bang Bang Club, a group of four dedicated photojournalists, renowned for their striking and uncompromising documentation of the bloody violence in post-apartheid South Africa. The group comprised of Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva, and the film charts the heights of their prolific and acclaimed photography careers to the downward trajectory of tragedy that would befall them.
Working for the Johannesburg Star newspaper, the four journalists were fearless in their desire to confront and document the carnage exploding around them. Their award winning photography depicted the ferocity of the conflicts and the film lingers on their shots, delving into the images and presenting us with every savage detail. When Under Fire: Shoot Back! is not a film for the faint of heart. We witness through the Bang Bang Club’s lens, people immolated, shot, beaten and hacked to death. It is sobering viewing.
There is no doubting the conviction or the talent of the four subjects. Their dedication is unimpeachable. However, the film raises interesting concerns as to how detached a person can remain in the face of such brutality. This is highlighted by Kevin Carter’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the famine ravaged Sudan, of a small child being shadowed by a vulture. Questions were raised as to why the journalists did not save the child. Unable to intervene at the time, it nonetheless had a profound effect on Carter and the rest of the Bang Bang Club. Their lives haunted by the death and violence they encountered.
As powerful as these images are, and as interesting as some of the questions become, there is something lacking from the film. Perhaps a slightly deeper analysis of the reasons behind the South African conflict may have provided some better context. Instead, we are thrown into the mix with little historical background beyond the turmoil of the period between apartheid and elected government.
The film is confronting. The footage of a mortally wounded Ken Oosterbroek being loaded into the back of a jeep is impossible to forget, long after the credits have rolled; and João Silva contemplating his decision to document it as he would any other situation is raw and painful.
But putting these moments aside, for the majority of the film we’re left feeling a little distant from the subjects. In the same way that they distance themselves from the carnage they reported on, we can’t quite connect. Beyond the Bang Bang Club’s devotion to their craft we do not know enough about them as human beings, and we need this humanity as a waypoint in a film mapping its darkest capabilities.
As such, When Under Fire: Shoot Back! is a tough watch, but strangely unsatisfying. Away from the visceral footage and the immediate emotional reactions it provokes, the rest of the film feels lacking. The viewer might need a Wikipedia supplement for history and context, and although When Under Fire: Shoot Back! is periodically very compelling, it ultimately falls a little short of the mark.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10