Friday, February 22, 2008

Shock Docs

The Girl with 8 Limbs: is this educational TV or voyeurism?

As a programme title, The Boy with an Arse for a Face sounds like a parody. Actually, it is a parody, a sketch from the new series of That Mitchell and Webb Look starting on Thursday. If it sounds like a crude satire on medical “shock docs” then consider that Five is showing the day before The Boys Joined at the Head, and the day before that Channel 4 broadcasts The Girl with 8 Limbs. Both films belong to extremely popular documentary strands that, whatever else you say about them, help to crowd out documentaries with something to say about our world rather than its sensational exceptions.

Shooting People, a large social network for some 30,000 film-makers, most of whom struggle to be shown on network television, used to run a weekly competition in which members competed to spot the most vilely titled forthcoming documentary. They had plenty of choice. Five's Extraordinary People has introduced us to The Woman with Half a Face, The Boy with a New Head and The Twins Who Share a Body. Channel 4's Bodyshock has presented Megatumour, Born with Two Heads, The Snake- woman and The World's Biggest Boy.

The competition was eventually wound up, presumably after Discovery last year included in its My Shocking Story series, Half Man Half Tree, the tale of an Indonesian fisherman whose body's transformation into bark-like welts was so hideous that bloggers on YouTube, where a clip inevitably appeared, wrongly cried hoax.

Historians may well one day debate which was the true era of grotesquery and voyeurism: the 17th century, with its viewing galleries in lunatic asylums, the 18th, with its public hangings, the 19th, with its fairground elephant men - or our own.

TV executives are unlikely to rush to claim credit for the first shock doc. The earliest I can remember was Boy David in 1983 by Desmond Wilcox. David was a Peruvian orphan whose face had been eaten away by a malignant disease. After being discovered by a Scottish plastic surgeon, David endured 80 operations on his face. The film, sensational at the time, established a pattern from which the genre has hardly deviated. The victim will be poor and live abroad. His saviour will be a doctor from the affluent West. A journey will therefore be required, a handy metaphor for the film's narrative. Not for nothing did Boy David belong to a series named The Visit.

But here in the shock doc's genesis lies the paradox. Wilcox's film was shocking yet won five international awards and was praised for its sensitivity. Extraordinary People and Bodyshock sometimes receive similar compliments. They shock, but often they move. The Girl with 8 Limbs obeys the format: a sensationally disabled child from India travels a long distance for a medical miracle. Yet the dignity of Lakshmi Tatma's parents, who could have made money from their daughter as a reincarnation of a Hindu goddess, inspires. Similarly, the story of the separation by a Dallas surgeon of the Egyptian boys' heads moves because the children possess courage and lack self-pity.

Viv McGrath, who made Megatumour, Six-Stone Baby, The 80- Year-Old Children and The Boy Who Gave Birth to His Twin, is used to defending her work before medical audiences. “The moral line I draw is that they cannot just be powerful human interest stories. They have to tell us something wider about ourselves and they have to be underwritten by credible science. If they don't, they can cross the line into voyeurism. Unfortunately, a lot of people have started to make them and some are better than others.”

Neither of this week's shock docs is irresponsible, but I wondered why I had to be commissioned to watch them, whereas seeing again Patrick Collerton's award-winning The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off from 2004 was a pleasure. The explanation, I think, is that Collerton subverted shock doc convention. Jonny Kennedy, dying from a genetic condition which meant his skin flayed at the touch, was not the victim but the protagonist of his story. From Northumberland not India, 36 not 6, exhibiting the mordant wit of a stand-up comedian, Kennedy narrated his own posthumous story, voicing its opening words as if from his coffin. This was the reverse of an intrusion. Kennedy was asking, even forcing, us to watch. He thought (and who is to say he was wrong?) that some shock docs do us good.

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