Matilda Dixon-Smith: My Date with Louis Theroux

Posted on March 25, 2013


After weeks filming the owners, workers and clients of a legal brothel in Nevada, BBC’s Louis Theroux and his team are packing up and leaving. Louis says goodbye to the owners, Lance and Susan, and to a few of the girls. One of these partings, with bubbly escort Haley, seems genuinely mournful. Over the course of the documentary the two have become friends and it’s clear that there is a strong attachment. She kisses him goodbye on his cheeks. He jokes that his girlfriend might get jealous, to which she responds “I’m jealous of your girlfriend, lucky bitch!” While I appreciate that Haley is probably joking, I understand the sentiment.

"Louis and the Brothel": with Lance, Susan and Haley.

“Louis and the Brothel”: with Lance, Susan and Haley.

Louis Theroux’s documentaries for the BBC are fairly notorious. Because I mostly use television time to catch up on the hijinks of fictional American teenagers, I only recently came across Theroux’s documentation of some of the world’s freakiest fringe cultures. For me, getting to know Louis has been like opening a can of Pringles: I’ve “popped” and now I “can’t stop.”

A Louis Theroux documentary is kind of like being taken on a date to the movies; while one objective is to watch and enjoy the film, the other is to get to know the person sitting beside you. In Louis’ documentaries, the goal is to peek at the world of a modern Nazi family, or a male pornography star, or a facility for containing convicted paedophiles after they’ve served their prison term. The ancillary objective, however, is to get to know Louis himself; for it is almost impossible to watch one of these programs and not form a relationship with this man.

The man in question: Louis Theroux, looking thoughtful.

Like Haley, I might be a little in love with Louis Theroux. He’s a funny-looking guy: tall, gangly, bespectacled, with a heck of a jaw and a penchant for very nerdy turtleneck jumpers. He’s also a completely captivating presenter, a tender and probing interviewer, and he has the unique ability to gain intimate access to a closed-off community and remain (for the most part) objective.

Interestingly enough, it is the documentaries where he departs from objectivity and becomes irrevocably involved with his subjects that are the best. Take the Nevada brothel documentary, for example: in order to get an interview with the prostitute Haley, Louis consents to a massage session with her. The session is amusing, and also intensely uncomfortable. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of the documentary; though we don’t learn all that much, watching Louis and Haley interact with each other is startling, and there are several moments where you feel he’s gotten too close to objectively present the establishment in general, and Haley’s experience in particular. When Haley is temporarily let go from the brothel for bad behaviour, Louis seems really disturbed.

But it is exactly Louis’ attachment to the establishment, and his connection to Haley and the other girls, that makes the documentary brilliant. Through Louis’ eyes we can see the allure of the brothel, and we get a sense of who exactly the owners are trying to protect. While Louis’ documentaries are sometimes a little silly, and though they often wobble over the ethical line between immersion and attachment, their cleverness and ability to provoke thought are almost unparalleled.

Another stand-out is his film of the Westboro Baptist Church—that disturbing, corrupt religious group who picket soldiers’ funerals in the US. Louis spends months with the Church (like a large co-op, family or, if you’re going for a stronger descriptor, a cult) and becomes close with a couple of the older children (who are in their late teens and early twenties). Louis and the girls respond to each other with equal parts anger, frustration and pity; the girls seem genuinely distressed that Louis (in their eyes) will go to hell, and Louis’ pain as he watches the girls discard their childhood and wider society for the destructive insulation of the Church is etched on his face in every scene.

Louis and the women of the Westboro Baptist Church.

This documentary is perhaps the most affecting, and not just because it’s clear that the Westboro Baptist Church is an inescapably evil organisation. It’s because we see how Louis is damaged by his interactions with the family: he’s disgusted, disturbed and unable to help the younger members of the Church who he believes are crying out to be rescued. Louis is the key ingredient to a Louis Theroux documentary, and his charisma and talent are what makes them such a gratifying experience.

You can watch many of Louis’s documentaries on iView, but most are available in full on YouTube

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief and their resident television fanatic. You can catch her column, Fantasise or Perish, on Mondays. 

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