TV: Louis Theroux – Law and Disorder in Johannesburg

Is it right to define Louis Theroux’s latest documentary as TV? Technically, yes as it was on BBC Two to begin with. But for me, I’m thinking it’s probably necessary to redefine such visual experiences in terms of the type of material I’m watching and how I’m watching it, at least for this blog. In this case, the title should really be “documentary” and “mobile phone”.

Theroux’s hour-long piece about crime in Johannesburg was something I was certain I wouldn’t get a chance to see. Although I’m an iPlayer supporter and do from time to time watch an entire programme on my laptop, I’m still largely someone who relies on his Sky+ box to catch up on TV assuming I don’t watch it the moment it’s broadcast. Inevitably, I’ve missed Theroux’s piece on Law and Disorder in Philadephia. Hey, I usually arrive late to everything.

Over the past few days I’ve seen a number of people comment on Theroux’s programme. It was one of many Twitter updates which I have overlooked. Twitter has become increasingly annoying in recent weeks – a necessary evil destined to feature in a future posting, no doubt – and I was very close to ignoring yet another one about the documentary.

At 6.00pm this evening, however, I confronted my irritation, processed through it and downloaded it to my phone. I’d watch it on my way home.

Theroux didn’t disappoint. On my tiny 2 inch screen, his usual style shone out. His seemingly naiive inquisitiveness engages me, his gentle but thorough questioning indispensible.

But it’s his bravery in this particular documentary which really hit me hard. There were moments as I peered at my mobile on my way home when I feared what he was getting himself into. I wanted him to ask more questions, wanted him to go into buildings I didn’t dare to go in myself. I gasped when he went inside one very dark block of flats, the camera shining the smallest light into the eery darkness. I wanted him to be careful. I didn’t want harm to come to him.

These were genuine reactions to what I was watching on screen as I made my journey home. It seemed odd to be learning about another city far away as I made my way home. It didn’t matter I was watching on a mobile. Nothing was lost. In fact, it might have been sub-zero temperatures this evening, but I still made a point of walking from the train station to my front door to finish watching.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’s revealing and – as far as I can make out – brutally realistic without being gratuitous.

What hit home more than anything else was the way I was watching it. In recent months I’ve done battle with a man who reckoned that people are incapable of concentrating on small videos for any longer than 3 minutes. Any more than the magic three minutes and they’ll lose interest and go some place else. Nonsense, I responded to him in an email. If the subject material is good people will watch. Not surprisingly, he and I don’t speak anymore.

Theroux’s programme – watched on my mobile phone on my way home – was an hour long. I was gripped to the whole journey. I can’t really remember how I got from one tube to another. That’s how good it was.

Louis’ a god, so too his producer who has a job I never want to have. It’s clearly a collaborative effort – how could it not be. This isn’t just Theroux on his own, although his obvious skill is something to behold. How he manages to draw out responses from people when us in the audience wonder whether he’s inadvertently provoking them is beyond me. But the piece is also a testament to the contributors who agreed to take part, the camera man who makes a point of sweeping from Louis to the contributor (thus emphasising that this isn’t an edited conversation) and the calm and measured way the final piece is put together.

For those of you inside the UK (apologies to the rest of you) you can also catch Theroux’s Law & Disorder in Philadelphia on the BBC iPlayer.

Louis Theroux features in this C21 video talking about his Law & Disorder series.



7 thoughts to “TV: Louis Theroux – Law and Disorder in Johannesburg”

  1. Try watching him in Philadelphia. Not quite as all out scary in an is-he-going-to-get-himself-knifed?? sort of way, but gripping viewing and deeply deeply depressing. Put me off going to America that’s for sure.

  2. It was a televisual triumph of epic proportions. I mentioned this on another blog somewhere, but what I really admire about Louis is his ability to simply say “Can I talk to you?” to his subjects. Very rarely is he turned down. How many other makers would storm in with “We’re making documentary for the BBC…yada yada”.

  3. Both epidsodes were gripping TV. The Jo’burg one was especially good. The constant state of tension throughout the suburbs featured was pretty scary as you realise that anarchy (and all it entails) had the potential to arrive at any time. Not the kind of show the South African tourist board would want people to see!

  4. I’m South African and I was completely horrified by this episode. My husband and I sat in stunned silence the whole way through. I couldn’t help wondering if Louis Theroux was taking some mind altering substance when he wanted to go into the hijacked building – either that or he had no idea of the danger he was in. We are still left wondering what is reality, the anarchy of Diepsloot and Hillbrow, or the relative normality of the Cape Town suburb we live in…

  5. This was shown on BBC last night here in South Africa and it was a well executed documentary that basically reiterated allot of what we already know.
    However, I did not like the way the hijacked apartments were being portrayed. The viewer was made to feel some sympathy towards a squatter who had been evicted. Yet at no point did anyone raise the question of “where are the owners of these flats”? They did not sell them. These poor people have lost everything they own to the hijackers, so please save your sympathy for these criminals that ruined this country. Perhaps one day someone will make a documentary about the South Africans who have built this country that are now facing a life of poverty, and lawlessness.

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