TV Critic Niamh Brennan counts down five of Louis Theroux’s best documentaries, each one as stimulating and intriguing as the next, proving his well-earned icon status
5. Law & Disorder in Johannesburg
Theroux’s investigation in Johannesburg is a distressing look into an almost anarchic society run by crime: the law is completely overshadowed by gang activity and a lack of trust in the official police force. Among the violence running rampant, criminal gangs have taken over entire apartment blocks and illegally obtain rent from oblivious tenants.
Even without putting himself in direct danger, as a viewer it is hard not to feel nervous for Theroux throughout the episode, with the ever-present threat of violence evident in the behaviour, attitudes and language of the subjects of his interviews. You often have to remind yourself that Theroux is depicting the reality of life for so many individuals and families, and not a displaced dystopian work of fiction.
4. Louis and the Brothel
One of the most amusing of his documentaries sees Theroux placed out of his depth and subject to the whim of the women working at the Wild Horse brothel. It is a fascinating insight into the varying attitudes towards brothel prostitution, with many of the women passionate about what they do – a strikingly contrasting view to the social stigma attached to the concept. It is also heart-breaking; some women come from a background of sickening circumstances or out of monetary desperation. The attitudes of male visitors to the brothel are shady at best, and one encounter with an almost paedophilic customer is difficult to overlook, resonating with you well after the documentary is finished. However, it is clear that Wild Horse attempts to provide a safe environment for the woman to earn money, and for many, in a way that they love.
3. A Place for Paedophiles
In one of his most unexpectedly thought-provoking documentaries, Theroux spends time at Coalinga State Hospital in California, a hospital for paedophiles. The very premise of the documentary is unsettling, giving personality to the men behind the blanket term, something not usually attempted to document. Theroux never attempts to justify the men’s actions; however, he provides a harrowing glance into the lives of paedophiles, some of whom are trying to escape the stigma attached to their past crimes. As a viewer you never feel sympathy for the men in question: Theroux always places an ideological distance between himself and the men he interviews, however it is difficult to come away from the documentary without feeling emotionally influenced.
2. Extreme Love: Autism
“Unless I let you film it, no one’s going to ever know that this is true autism” speaks one mother of her Autistic son, screaming and crying after a violent outburst provoked by his non-verbal Autism. With a recent increase in autism awareness in popular culture, this documentary from 2012 presents to us the reality of Autism, exploring the lives of children from various ranges on the Autistic spectrum: a harsh insight into the raw familial emotions driven by Autism. However, it is also intensely uplifting to see how far the Autistic community comes together to make the lives of people with or exposed to Autism easier. Indeed, it hits the mark in both a real and empathetic insight into the reality of Autism.
1. Louis and the Nazis
Louis and the Nazis follows Theroux’s investigation into modern day Nazi’s living in America, who wholeheartedly believe in white supremacist views that to most people appear ridiculous and unbelievable. Whilst inquisitively questioning their choice of beliefs at every turn, Theroux never takes his subjects’ views seriously, effectively undermining their principals. One of the highlights of the episode comes from the so called ‘most dangerous racist in the United States’, whose love of Karaoke involved him socialising in a majority non-white bar. It’s an exhausting watch, only emphasised by the obvious exhaustion on Theroux’s part having to question such ridiculous characters, but Theroux’s unforgiving attitude makes it one of his most unforgettable documentaries.