Q&A with Louis Theroux

Documentary fans are in for a treat this summer, as renowned documentarian Louis Theroux curates a selection of the films that have moved, entertained and influenced him for a new collection on BBC iPlayer.

Published: 18 July 2018
The BBC’s asked me to talk about a few documentaries that are in the BBC archives, that made an impression on me, that I enjoyed and that may have influenced me over the years. I’ve had a look at what’s available and chose a handful of my favourites.
— Louis Theroux

What is Louis Theroux: Docs That Made Me about?

The BBC’s asked me to talk about a few documentaries that are in the BBC archives, that made an impression on me, that I enjoyed and that may have influenced me over the years. I’ve had a look at what’s available and chose a handful of my favourites.

Tell us about the first film in your collection, Storyville: Philip And His Seven Wives

Philip And His Seven Wives is a documentary directed by Marc Isaacs, who is a terrific filmmaker. Many of his documentaries are elegiac and elliptical and in the best sense, not journalistic; they’re about mood and character and not necessarily about narrative.

This one is in some ways an anomaly, in terms of his catalogue. It’s an immersive look at this unconventional domestic arrangement in which ex Rabbi, who styles himself as one of God’s judges, thinks God’s led him to believe that he is a King and that he should have seven wives.

Why do you like about this film in particular?

I love documentaries that are about weird religious behaviour, but I also like subjects that are about unconventional sexual behaviour, and Philip And His Seven Wives has both of those. It’s a very intimate look inside how that works, what’s driving Philip and what’s driving the women those are involved with him, and it’s done very well. It could have been a kind of tawdry and tabloid-ish style doc but it’s done very poetically. There’s beautiful imagery of Phillip caring for his horses and it’s infused with a great deal of visual poetry.

And there’s something about it being in the UK, in a more or less recognisable British landscape that gives it more power. We’re used to seeing polygamous Mormons in Utah, but something about seeing it in East Sussex, close to where my mum lives, adds another twist to it.

You’ve also included Inside Story: Mini, what is it about this film that appealed to you?

This film is about an 11-year-old arsonist whose nicknamed Mini. It’s a very affectionate portrait of a young, presumably troubled boy, who is nevertheless very charismatic, talkative, and ebullient. I’m always interested in behaviour that is obviously self-destructive or criminal, especially when the person involved seems to have likeable, positive qualities, intelligence and creativity and quirkiness, all of which Mini, this 11-year-old, has in abundance. You just really fall in love with this boy as you go on the journey with him.

Is it difficult to meet people like Mini and say goodbye once the cameras are turned off?

One of the things that stays with me is that Frank Rodham the director stayed in touch with Mini. I don’t know if they became friends as such, but they certainly continued to have a kind of relationship, a friendly relationship. For those of us who work in documentaries, especially when you get close to someone who’s a contributor who feels quite special, there’s always an urge to stay in touch and to keep up with the people. It’s not always possible, and you find yourself wondering what became of people who you film with.

The next film is Exposed: Magicians, Psychics & Frauds, what can you tell us about this one?

I watched this just last year. It’s a portrait of a very distinctive and rather brilliant American figure called James Randi, also known as The Amazing Randi. Randi started out as both a magician and a kind of con artist who used devious techniques to take advantage of people. He had a conversion moment when he decided to put his talents towards exposing deceptive religious figures, preachers who purported to do miracles, psychics who purported to have supernatural abilities. That became his life’s work, unmasking these people creating illusions.

What is it about this one that made you want to include it in the collection?

I’m interested in fakery and quackery and also this question of, which is at the heart of faith healing in general which is, ‘is false hope better than no hope at all?’ This documentary deals with some of those questions and it’s a very entertaining watch.

You’ve also chosen Between Life And Death for your collection, what can you tell us about this film?

Between Life And Death is a documentary by Nick Holt who’s made a number of terrific TV docs. This one is particularly good, and it’s a look at a brain injury unit in Cambridge and the patients there who exist in a sort of twilight world of semi-consciousness or comatose state.

And how would you say it’s influenced you as filmmaker?

It was an influence on me in that it showed me that the small dramas of the recovery and the small dramas that take place in a hospital can be really powerful and dramatic. It gave me the confidence to do a story I later did that was called Edge Of Life. It’s about people with life threatening conditions at Cedar Sinai Hospital in LA that dealt with similar themes, like when is enough treatment, or at what point do you basically say we’ve done all we can from a medical perspective, we should now allow nature to take its course.

You’ve included a pick from the BBC Three’s Life And Death Row series, what made you choose this episode in particular?

If you’ve seen any Life And Death Rows, I don’t know of any bad ones - all the episodes I’ve seen have been really compelling and powerful. This one I thought stood out, as it’s a particularly strong one and I think it’s partly to do with the age of the perpetrators. It’s a pair of very young men, and also the seeming motivelessness and senselessness of the crime. It’s powerful, it’s upsetting, and it really stays with you.

And why do you think this one is an important one to include in the collection?

I suppose in my own documentaries I’ve been drawn more to perpetrators than victims. You know there is a school of documentary making that is victim-focused, which is totally appropriate and right, but I don’t think it should be exclusively the domain of where all documentaries take place. I find myself more drawn to trying to understand the motives behind why these things take place.

The final film is Fourteen Days In May, tell us about the impact this film had on you

Many documentaries that are terrific come and go but this one is one that I think most people involved in documentaries will have seen and would agree that it’s a powerful and important piece of storytelling.

It follows a young man who is in a prison convicted of a rape and murder in the two week run up to his execution. What becomes clear in the course of the storytelling is that it’s highly likely that the young man did not do the crimes. There’s a great deal of doubt, so it’s a powerful piece of storytelling, and it’s heartbreaking.

What is it about this film that you feel makes it so important?

Most of the film is told through interview and actuality and you don’t get a sense of who’s behind the camera, but one of the striking scenes in the film is when the filmmakers finally say goodbye to the young guy whose been convicted of the crimes, and he’s off to be executed. They break the form, the fourth wall if you like, and the director comes out and hugs the guy as he goes off to his death.

It’s moments like that, things you’re not supposed to do, if done judiciously and in a way that feels totally motivated, can be enormously powerful in a film. I believe that was motivated by an appropriate emotional response as a filmmaker and at the same time, almost paradoxically, it becomes a very powerful storytelling device as well. You have a sense as a viewer that something so important has happened that normal rules have gone out the window. It ratified a sense that I had that rules are meant to be broken.