On his website, Louis Theroux describes himself like this: “I work principally for the BBC making documentaries about worlds and people that I find intriguing.”
He puts those worlds on display in a series that begins with Louis Theroux: Behind Bars, which takes us inside San Quentin. Also coming are African Hunting Holiday; he follows people who travel to South Africa to hunt wild animals on a game farm – and Law & Disorder in Johannesburg, in which he looks at private police forces.
I’ve seen the first two and they are, indeed, intriguing. That is, they show you worlds you’ve likely never experienced and put them in some context. But Theroux isn’t Morgan Spurlock, whose 30 Days series presented a distinct point of view, and he’s certainly not Michael Moore, whose 1994-95 series, TV Nation, provided Theroux with an entrée into American television.
Theroux is British, so he works subtly. Behind Bars is fairly straightforward; African Hunting Holiday is surprisingly balanced, despite Theroux’s misgivings about what he sees.
Inside San Quentin, Theroux talks to inmates whose attitudes will be fairly shocking to those of us who’d weep at the thought of spending one day incarcerated. A 21-year-old convicted murderer says his own neighborhood was worse than prison. “It’s like a playground here,” he tells Theroux. “Ain’t nothing scary about this.”
David Silva, an inmate serving 521 years and 11 life sentences for multiple home invasions, says, “You can make a life in here … if you put your mind to it.” You’re always going to have food and shelter, and you don’t have to worry about losing your job, he adds. As far as not having freedom or women, “You can get over that.”
After hearing that, we can register our own horror. We don’t need Theroux to raise an eyebrow. Nor does he need to comment on the constant noise inside the prison. We can hear that for ourselves, and it is unnerving.
Theroux does find himself puzzled, though, by some of the prisoners’ attitudes. Like why a white inmate will be beaten up by other whites if he takes food from a black prisoner. (That’s just the way it is.) Or why homosexual prisoners wear makeup. (Other inmates are less likely to beat up a “girl.”)
We walk away from this perplexed by how routine this all seems to the people inside. Theroux, though, treats it as another day at the office.
He’s far more conflicted by what he sees in South Africa, where he follows hunters who’ve come from Cleveland to bag exotic animals like zebras, lions and impalas. Multiple times, he asks the hunters and the people who run the game preserves whether it’s right to breed and hunt animals in an enclosed space.
Not surprisingly, they all defend what they do. To them, animals are a commodity, wonderful beasts that make magnificent trophies and help the local economy. And besides, have you ever seen how the meat you eat gets killed?
Fair warning: Shots of dead animals are everywhere in this show. But those who can stand to see these creatures turned into trophies will find Theroux’s documentary – what’s the word? – intriguing.