Louis Theroux’s latest documentary shows he is the best filmmaker in the world
On Sunday, Louis Theroux returned.
His latest documentary, Savile, revisited an interview with the show’s name sake, Louis’ anguish and an attempt to report his interviewee after he confessed to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in 2001.
The film’s predecessor, Drinking to Oblivion, is about alcoholism, and was shot mainly at King’s College Hospital in south London. Theroux follows three alcoholics: Aurelie, a Parisian who lives in Brixton and whose liver is rapidly deteriorating, Joe Walker, a 32-year old who relapsed into alcoholism after losing his girlfriend and job, and who appears in A&E bloodied, bruised and unable to walk, and Peter, a South African man who relapsed after the death of his father.
The documentary is discomfiting. These characters are vulnerable and defeated. Each has a personal pattern for their disorder: whether that’s drinking from the moment they wake, or consuming two bottles of vodka a day, or lying in bed, crying and drinking, barely conscious. These lives are something that happen to other people.
Yet we recognise the characters. While the behaviour is extreme, their motives – loss, fear, hopelessness – humanise them. They have reacted inordinately to the ordinary miseries of life. When Joe talked about his break-up, I remembered when I broke up with someone and felt wretched and like there was no point doing anything. I understood that reactions differ in scale, rather than tone; that it is not such a huge leap to see how you could be fine one day, and spiralling into dissolute abjectness the next.
I am not being glib. I do not minimise his misery, or the misery of any of those who featured. The kinship with the people is proof of the power of Theroux’s approach. He never sensationalises, he draws out the human story by asking personal questions. He has empathy. Typically, the proscribed position of the documentary maker is detachment; Theroux struggles with that. When Aurelie’s boyfriend is caustic and unpleasant about her, he interrogates him, calmly; later, he tells her she deserves better. When Joe tries to refuse treatment, you can tell Louis really wants to intervene. This struggle is to his credit and it alters the tenor of the coverage. It adds inestimable power.
To celebrate Louis Theroux’s best work yet, here are five more times he showed why he’s the world’s best documentary maker.
The Most Hated Family in America
Theroux’s work with the Phelps family of the Westboro Baptist Church is astonishing. He remains mild-mannered in the face of their sobering hatred; he uses the softest of touches to ask the questions that expose them for what they are – vile bigots – without giving them cause to explode and close down filming.
Miami Mega Jail Parts 1 and 2
He deftly unlocks the minds of the institutionalised prisoners of the Miami ‘Mega Jail’.
Weird Weekends: South Africa
Theroux meets racist Afrikaner separatists and points out, calmly, that their plans to create cultural enclaves in post-Apartheid South Africa are racist.
Weird Weekends: The Survivalists
It’s incredible that he can listen to people propounding totally outrageous world views and seem disgruntled and reasonable, rather than spooked and overwrought.
Louis and the Nazis
Partly, it’s just really shocking to discover that the nastiest period in our collective history persists in the present day. Obviously, he handles the extremism of their violent racism calmly and delivers insight without a modicum of understanding for their position.