Documentaries - Louis Theroux Curates

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...

The collection showcases a wide variety of documentaries from the BBC archive, spanning from 1975 to 2016. The films explore a broad range of issues, including alcoholism, the American criminal justice system, polygamy in UK, and childhood delinquency.

Theroux said "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. Each of them had an impact on me in a different way. They cover a range of styles - some vérité-driven, others told more through interview - but in all of them you see life at its most raw, its most strange and therefore its most human. I hope BBC iPlayer viewers enjoy them as much as I have."

In an exclusive new film for iPlayer, Louis Theroux: Docs That Made Me, Louis explains why he chose the documentaries in the collection and how they have inspired his work. Here's some of the programmes that Louis Theroux chose, along with some more of his own thoughts on each film.  All the films are now available on BBC iPlayer, click on the titles below to watch each documentary.

First broadcast in 1975, this provocative documentary about an 11-year-old serial arsonist shocked millions across the UK. Michael 'Mini' Cooper had already torched a church and set his family home ablaze, knowing his father to be inside. The film follows the angelic looking Mini in a young offenders home in County Durham, as social workers and psychiatrists quiz and probe the charismatic and intelligent tearaway to determine his future.

Franc Roddam's film has a simplicity and directness that captivates whilst never shying away from the seriousness of the situation. Roddam would go onto find fame in Hollywood, but over 40 years on remains close friends with Cooper, who has spent most of his life in and out of jail, care, mental health units and halfway houses.

"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.

"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."

There is one crime on the record of Edward Earl Johnson, a 26-year-old African-American man from Mississippi - murder. He was convicted on the sole evidence of signing a confession he had not written. Johnsonalways denied the killing and appealed against his death sentence for eight years in the US courts.

Fourteen Days in May is a countdown to an execution, revealing the effect on prison staff and other death-row inmates as time runs out for one young man.

"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.

"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."

Storyville: Philip And His Seven Wives (2006)

First broadcast in 2006, Marc Isaacs's eye-opening Storyville film explores the life of a Jewish antiques dealer from a small English seaside town who believes it is his Biblical birth right to take as many wives as he chooses. Spending time with the family in Hove, Isaacs tries to understand why the women have chosen to live under the rule of this self-proclaimed Hebrew King.

"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.

"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."

Between Life And Death (2010)

This provocative documentary follows the doctors, who can now interrupt, and even reverse, the process of death and was first broadcast in 2010. Filmed over six months in the country's leading brain injury unit (Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge), it follows the journey of a man who, by only moving his eyes, is eventually asked if he wants to live or die. Two other families are also plunged into the most ethically difficult decision in modern medicine.

"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.

"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."

Exposed: Magicians, Psychics & Frauds (2014)

Exposed: Magicians, Psychics & Frauds, first broadcast in 2014, follows renowned magician James 'The Amazing' Randi has been wowing audiences with his jaw-dropping illusions, escapes and sleight of hand for over 50 years. When he began seeing his cherished art form co-opted by all manner of con artists, he made it his mission to expose the simple tricks charlatans have borrowed from magicians to swindle the masses.

The film chronicles Randi's best debunkings of faith healers, fortune tellers and psychics. It documents his rivalry with famed spoon-bender Uri Geller, whom Randi eventually foiled on a high-profile television appearance. Another target was evangelist Peter Popoff, whose tent-show miracles and audience mind-reading were exposed as chicanery when Randi revealed a recording of Popoff's wife feeding him information through a radio-transmitter earpiece. 

"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.

"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."

Life And Death Row - Truth (2016)

Life And Death Row is a series that tells the story of capital punishment through the eyes of young people whose lives have been shaped by it. With unprecedented access inside prison walls, it discovers what it's like to live with the threat of the death chamber, as well as hearing from victims and their families, and the family of those on death row - some praying for execution, some hoping for a reprieve. Each episode focuses on different aspects of the system - execution, punishment and the complex nature of 'truth'.

Truth centres around events that happened in January 2014, Waynesville, Ohio, when 18-year-old Justin Back was brutally murdered in his own home. Two of his 19-year-old friends, Austin Myers and Timothy Mosley, are arrested and charged with his murder. However both give very different versions of events, begging the question, who is telling the truth?

With prosecutors seeking the death penalty for the crime, what will each one do to save themselves from the ultimate punishment? With access to the families of all three boys, the devastating nature of this gruesome crime and its repercussions are revealed. It's one crime but will there be two different outcomes?

"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.

"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."

Images & info - BBC

Find the collection on BBC iPlayer
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