'When Under Fire, Shoot Back': Reykjavik Review

Courtesy of Reykjavik International Film Festival
An involving group portrait in a familiar mode

Four Johannesburg journalists were daredevils even by their peers' standards

Another admiring account of photojournalistic heroism and its human cost, Marc Wiese's When Under Fire, Shoot Back introduces the "Bang Bang Club," four photographers who documented the violence of Apartheid's last days in South Africa. Though it isn't the first to the party — a 2004 short film about member Kevin Carter was nominated for an Oscar; a 2010 feature starring Taylor Kitsch and Ryan Phillippe was not — the doc does a strong job; it will play well with fest and home auds who are interested in this slice of history, though it won't have the reach of, say, 2001's War Photographer.

Told in the past tense, it lacks the you-are-there devices that helped make that celebrated film so gripping. That's something of a missed opportunity, given that two of the four core members, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, are still working in the field, sometimes under daunting circumstances. But Wiese's understandable focus is on the time when all four fed off each other's energy while shooting for the newspaper The Star — and on the tragic deaths of Ken Oosterbroek, who was shot during a 1994 township standoff, and Kevin Carter, who took his own life not long afterward.

In showing the work they produced, Wiese lingers much longer on images than is customary, something that's only fruitful with especially complicated scenes or in those accompanied by really potent stories: Oosterbroek's brother and sister recall their reaction to a series of stills in which a machete-wielding man runs full-tilt at the motionless cameraman, clearly intending to kill him.

In a couple of unfortunate cases (including the movie's most famous, Pulitzer-winning picture), Wiese uses the increasingly hackneyed device of digitally separating elements of a still photo to create the illusion of three-dimensional movement. This belies these pictures' ability to speak for themselves, an aesthetic gaffe one might forgive in a film that wasn't wholly centered on the power and importance of a simple newspaper photograph.

Wiese makes smarter use of journals Oosterbroek left behind, using these and interviews with the photographers' colleagues and loved ones to capture a collective portrait of a group that behaved, according to their old editor, like "juvenile delinquents," but who lived to do their jobs. We hear next to nothing about their youths or what drove them to this kind of work. But we understand who they were in the moment — poignantly so, as we hear how Carter began to unravel in response to controversy over his Pulitzer-winning shot, and finally chose not to carry on after Oosterbroek's death.


Production company: Engstfeld Film GmbH

Director: Marc Wiese

Producer: Axel Engstfeld

Directors of photography: Joerg Adams, Eddie Marritz, Reinhard Koecher, Pieter de Vries

Editor: Marc Schubert


No rating, 69 minutes