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Louis Theroux: 'I'm not that comfortable doing polemic'
His ability to make the subjects of his documentaries reveal how strange they are has made his name. But Louis Theroux says he never sets out to turn someone over
Decca Aitkenhead guardian.co.uk, Sunday 30 January 2011 20.30 GMT
Louis Theroux. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
What is it about Louis Theroux that makes people want to show him how odd they are? For more than a decade now, ever since Jimmy Savile confided on camera that he used to beat people up and lock them in a basement during his career as a nightclub manager, Theroux's subjects have been sharing their strangeness with him. But I've never been able to work out why. Critics have accused the presenter of tricking interviewees by pretending to be a bumbling fool – a faux naif – yet within minutes of meeting him, I think I see the real reason why his subjects reveal all. I don't know him at all, but would quite happily tell him anything. For a big man – well over 6ft – he is remarkably gentle in his bearing, but it's his eyes that invite confidence, for he squints with an expression of the most profound compassion and concern. If I didn't know what he did for a living, I'd guess he was a therapist, because it's the expression a good shrink would wear while a client recalled some terrible trauma. In his forgiving gaze, it's impossible to believe that anything you say could ever cause offence or shock – and so, of course, people come out with all sorts, forgetting that viewers may be rather more judgmental than Theroux. Because he first became famous for making films about somewhat sensational subjects – the sex industry, UFO abductees and the like – there has often been a suspicion that this slightly unworldly character we see on our screens must be a clever comic creation. How could a first-class history graduate from Oxford really be so non-judgmental? His latest film follows ultra Zionist settlers on the West Bank – hardly an unreported story, but one he says he came to with a genuinely open mind. Did he really not have a view
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'I think black people look like monkeys'. 'Do you think http://www." What does he mean? "Well. and the bald reply – "No" – is all the more arresting in the context of a film that doesn't automatically vilify the settlers. no. but he says mildly. in the film I made about Nazis. They were surrendering a lot. It's quite uncomfortable having your access being subject to the whim of one person. But also. based on what I saw. to my mind. many of whom are emigre Americans. At a time when most television journalism is moving in the opposite direction. to be honest. I'm aware. In recent years. So it's easy to be glib on one side or the other." and he sighs slightly apologetically. in terms of the extremism of their beliefs and the implications of their beliefs for people on the ground.co. and it struck me as both very relatable. Some viewers may wish that Theroux was more aggressively confrontational. "I think there were a few things going on. highly morally questionable." His job has evolved over the years. For example. mostly American subcultures such as porn stars. "like I'm not knee-jerk – but for example. but instead shows the bizarre and heartbreaking consequences of their conviction of divine entitlement to the land. Keith Harris and other names from that sub-strata of fame occupied by characters who could most charitably be described as colourful. I feel like the more I can be transparent in the way I approach a story. ranging from lifers in San Quentin jail and gang bosses in Lagos to crystal meth addicts in California and crime fighters in Johannesburg.guardian. A series of celebrity documentaries followed. I just thought. "I'm not that comfortable doing polemic or being strident. But my films are about attempting to square the fact that it may be someone you like. "that I don't feel I line up comfortably with this sort of knee-jerk leftwing critique of – I know that's very loaded." In the film he asks a settler if he considers himself equal to Palestinians. there's a sense in which – well it's just not a very nice way of working. their presence is. his subject matter has become less comical. and I try to resist that. featuring Neil and Christine Hamilton. and trying to build a relationship over a few weeks and trying to get to the truth. I don't like that feeling of holding back difficult questions. and I said. in terms of the life they lead. and about the dilemmas of being an Israeli. I wonder why he decided to move away from amusingly wacky celebrities and crazies. I really do like to be open. though. By the end of it I was more shocked. and at the same time utterly surreal. Max Clifford. I think what I'm good at is getting to know people. I thought a lot about nice Israelis I'd met. this guy said." And by the end? "Well.Louis Theroux: 'I'm not that comfortable doing polemic' | Television & radio | The Guardian 09/05/2012 14:31 about them before embarking on the film? "Not really. this is a community of settlers who live quite a suburban life. and the unquestionable fact that large portions of the Palestinian community would like to see Israel wiped off the map. towards more meaningful and mature films. It was a warts-and-all contract that depended on prolonged access in which they had no editorial control – but they controlled the access. into something very different from Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends. That's the whole thing – that's what I do. It's not me. One was that after the celebrity stories. however.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/30/louis-theroux-ultra-zionists-documentary/print Page 2 of 5 . swingers and survivalists." Did he like the settlers? "I did quite." he adds quickly. That's my job. so it was difficult to go through that with equanimity and tranquillity. his first series of documentaries that followed obscure. but it's also someone doing something that may be morally questionable. the more it makes a satisfying programme. and in a sense that emotional and journalistic contract I had with the subject was quite complicated.
The people enjoy proselytising for being militia men or swingers. He said." He thinks it might be his politeness that gets mistaken for complicity. "I used to be very timid. That was a bit sad. "When I spent more time with the people." He feels more comfortable now. because they do skate a bit on the surface.guardian. The Call of the Weird. oh well you've obviously had a nervous breakdown or dealt with some trauma or escaped something. I tend to take people at their own word. for he doesn't explore how his subjects come to hold the views they do. And yet. it's weird.co. "Did they know what kind of programme I was making? Did they think we were going to be friends? That we would keep in touch? But when I went back I realised I cared more about those questions than they did. about challenging his subjects. say. "I know. though.' I said. a feat made all the more unusual for not being achieved through a conventionally therapeutic route. and anything they say in an unguarded way is just grist to my mill and fair game.Louis Theroux: 'I'm not that comfortable doing polemic' | Television & radio | The Guardian 09/05/2012 14:31 you're better looking than Denzil Washington?'. and I feel as though I'm quite robust now when I talk to people. sometimes you have to protect the contributors a little bit. I say.' And it was really satisfying to be able to just say that. If I can spin it in a positive way. 'Oh look! I'm going to explore this world. I think they're just reacting to my earlier work. Some of those things are just enjoyable.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/30/louis-theroux-ultra-zionists-documentary/print Page 3 of 5 . but one of the things I became aware of is that it's really valid to look at some things just on the surface. You don't stop being a human being when you start being a journalist. There is a slightly greedy aspect in journalism where you think I'm entitled to everything. or porn stars. I realised that sense of obligation was really in my own head – they didn't think about it." Was it really not apparent to him that militia men. as well as in depth. for even off-camera he has a kind of courtesy that can come across as intellectual timidity." He offers the admission rather ruefully. Does it annoy him? "No. 'I think I'm a lot better looking. I'm basically making a case for superficiality. and I suspect he may be right. I think. though." he said at the time. and he has Heather Mills in his sights. "I probably should have realised a bit sooner. which hinged on me going. it is arguably this. he says. And I think there are limits. used to have – an unusually exaggerated sense of responsibility towards his subjects. it's going to be great being a porn star!' It was a very different tone. I didn't notice that the first time around. I don't tend to quickly think. and it's about having fun. so I quote it to him." he agrees. Actually. I don't know if other people get that. because a common critique of Theroux's work is that he doesn't do enough of that. And he has – or at least. examining his relationships with them. "I realised that whatever was originally weird and funny about them turned out to spring from some quality of being damaged that wasn't funny at all." he giggles softly. and I sort of enjoy hearing it. It's not hard to see why from http://www. he still manages to make many of them more sympathetic – or at least engagingly human – than most documentarymakers would. so much so that in 2005 he revisited many of them to write a book." If there is a weakness in his work. might be damaged? "Yeah. Does he feel responsible for how his subjects come across? "Yes. but it was another one he made when the book was published that I found more surprising. Maybe it's not that important. Weird Weekends. 'I think you're deluded. and whatever brought them to that can remain tacit." He doesn't altogether rule out revisiting the genre of the celebrity profile documentary at some point. I never misrepresent my position – you've got to be strong enough to make the argument and marshal the case." That's somewhat ironic.
"And that would weigh against doing it. Growing up in his family. isn't it?" I wouldn't be surprised if he has become more concerned with the ethics of documentary journalism as he has grown older." and he has described his family as competitive. he was only 22 when he began working for Michael Moore on an American documentary series. it's interesting. and younger brother of the novelist Marcel. and their two young sons. "I think actually it might make it better. The son of the travel writer Paul Theroux. So we're back to this question of disingenuity. http://www. Quality-of-life issues. and just for once I'm not convinced he's being entirely truthful. so it would feel a bit of betrayal to him to move somewhere leafier. Some people are interested in raising their profile." he concedes. "I think I've drifted through life not having to have any position of real authority." he smiles. and was still in his mid-20s when the BBC commissioned his first series of Weird Weekends. "But I'm slightly embarrassed about it." They live in the notoriously unlovely north London neighbourhood of Harlesden. he can't seriously believe her profile would be improved. that sort of thing. I tell him. and if she spends time with Theroux she's won't look any less bananas. I don't see." Seriously? "Yeah. But now arguably the most famous member of his family. pulling a classic Theroux face of puzzlement. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. Definitely. What. books were considered the acme of everything the human mind has to offer. and laughs at himself." he grins. can he? "I said it could use some freshening up. "Really?" he says. at 40 he can probably afford to approach his work with more gravitas. "Well. absolutely. "Well." He raises his eyebrows in self-mocking horror. "There was a kind of snobbery about books being better than everything. is because he wants it to happen! I imagine most people reading this will think Mills is bananas. "There is an element of that.guardian. "You might be right." So if he can't see any plausible possibility of a film being of some benefit to a subject. so to have to be the disciplinarian is quite different for me. and we both laugh. so he must have felt some pressure to make a quick success of his TV career. Don't you think?" I've got a feeling. noise. it really would. how a documentary could have a successful outcome for her. and "more by accident than design" he has become its unofficial famous face. that's bad faith. Like the fate of a London suburb hinges on my house choices." Harlesden is not exactly overpopulated by celebrities. a TV director. "I mean. I say. though." Louis Theroux – The Ultra-Zionists is on 3 February at 9pm on BBC2. He lives with his partner Nancy Strang. some are interested in raising the profile of a project – in her case I think it's landmines and vegetarianism – and some people just want to get their point across. that it could only make matters worse for her." But that. I don't think so. I don't think you should take those responsibilities too seriously. littering.uk/tv-and-radio/2011/jan/30/louis-theroux-ultra-zionists-documentary/print Page 4 of 5 . and he admits a little shamefacedly that another change brought about by parenthood has been "really bourgeois concerns about the quality of your neighbourhood. All rights reserved.co. I laugh. because that way madness lies. he wouldn't want to make it? "Oh. to go in there thinking I'm going to turn someone over?" He looks mildly appalled. What's in it for her is that her public image could really use some freshening up.Louis Theroux: 'I'm not that comfortable doing polemic' | Television & radio | The Guardian 09/05/2012 14:31 Theroux's point of view – but not so easy to see what could possibly be in it for her. and says that one of the surprises of fatherhood has been the requirement to exercise authority.
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