I have been a great admirer of Louis Theroux from a young age. His documentaries have enlightened me on issues which are known about, yet never shown on such a personal journalistic level. He has become some what of a national journalistic treasure in the eyes of the public for his gonzo-style journalism, a style that seems to get at the heart of any issue he has documented. When his documentaries do come round it is a true TV event for me, however I was left somewhat disappointed, wanting to be elucidated, yet outraged with his latest installment Louis Theroux: Law and Disorder in Lagos (BBC2, Sunday).
During the programme Louis investigated the chaotic policing of Nigeria’s former capital (they switched the capital to Abuja in 1991, as all pub quiz regulars know). In the streets and markets of Lagos “area boys” (gangs of local youths controlled by transport union officials) compete for authority with a paramilitary task force called KAI, which stands for Kick Against Indiscipline. Instinctively, you know it’s the sort of dispute you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of, but that’s exactly where Louis is, patrolling with one side one day, the other side on the following day, asking politely worded questions about how the whole corrupt and inherently unstable system works.
It takes a peculiar kind of bravery to continue to be Louis Theroux – awkward, bemused and persistently seeking clarification – when you find yourself, as he did several times, on the edge of a riot. His attempt to question a man in a bloodstained shirt seemed particularly foolhardy. “Is everything OK?” he asked, with people shouting and running past him, and the sound of gunfire ringing out whilst men warned him to get in his car.
Louis stood still and observed the mounting chaos. The sense of danger was heightened by the fact that neither we nor Louis understood what the hell was going on. “It’s a slightly weird atmosphere,” said Louis. This incident was the highlight for me, a typical English moment; Theroux floundering and looking confused whilst violence erupted around him, TV and documentary gold.
Furthermore, his documentary was a great portrait of a select few of powerful Nigerians. Aggressive, eloquent, corrupt, proud, smart, friendly. They are all politicians at heart. Consequently, Louis’s usual simple questioning style, which has proven effective before, failed as these chaps were able to parry and deflect pretty easily.
A better programme would have been a more in depth analysis of the quite fascinating ‘union’ situation. Louis wanted to report on the ‘street gang’ type violence, when it quickly became clear that the really interesting stuff was the behind the scenes action involving the state governor. Maybe he didn’t know any of this stuff until halfway through filming, but it seemed the ‘area boys’ were a bit of a red herring. The leader, “MC”, wasn’t really a gang boss – he was a politician, one that needed more investigation.
Gone are the days when he was interviewing Jimmy Saville (voted one of the top fifty documentaries of all time in a survey by Channel 4) and fanatics claiming to transmit Alien Communication, which for me is a real shame. If you ever get the chance, check out his Weird Weekends and his BBC2 specials particularly the“The Most hated family in America” which offers a rare glimpse into the Westboro Baptist Church, a family that take Christian fundamentalism to a whole new level and will truly leave you gaping in disbelief. They are all available on YouTube and I think would offer insight for students studying Politics, History, Theology, Law, you name it, his documentaries offer a wealth of forefront issues and fascinating debate.
Although this has gone down as a rare disjointed documentary, it is worth a watch, and I very much look forward to his next piece on the Israeli Settlers, which will be shown at the end of the year.