when BBC4 was launched, its tagline was ‘everyone needs a place to think’. Too true – but in the past I’ve always been unsure about whether TV was that place for me. I’ve often felt that to get a programme aired, people have had to make real compromises about exploring nuance – all those liminal spaces that I love so much – in order to ‘get the story’. However, at the weekend I watched two truly excellent documentaries that had all the qualities I look for in social commentary work.
First, The Fallen, a deeply moving and powerful three hour documentary about the 298 people in the armed forces who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last few years. It really was amazing, not least that the BBC gave it three hours of prime time TV. The format was simple: every single person was named, and war footage was interspersed with families and friends remembering the people they have lost. I’ve never seen anything like it: tales of how different people from all backgrounds deal with grief, stories of how we cope with such sudden loss while trying to keep life going. Morgan Matthews, I salute you.
The second programme was Growing Up Skint, a documentary that followed the lives of three different families living in pretty desperate circumstances. The kids they filmed were great, successfully challenging a frequently made assertion that people growing up poor lack aspirations. Rubbish. All of the kids in the programme hoped for a better life, despite the chaos around them. They all wanted to have successful relationships, to live in a nice place, to have work that meant something to them. The film also demonstrated the ‘othering’ effect of poverty. So much stigma is attached to it as a label that even those people living in what can objectively be called poverty refuse to self-identify as such. One little girl said she didn’t think they were poor because she’d seen poor people in Bangladesh and they weren’t like that. Another got cross with the film maker when there was a hint that he was seen as poor: it mattered to him that this was not how he was labelled.
What struck me with both films is how successfully they used their medium. The effects of war and poverty became real, live issues again, rather than a wealth of dehumanised statistics. There was no narration in either of them: the people spoke for themselves, with the director’s skill coming from how the footage was put together so it had its own story, without the need for additional explanation. Not only did this make the messages even stronger, it explored two issues that could easily be hammed up in a deeply humane and respectful way.