True Stories: Top 5 Louis Theroux Documentaries

Louis Theroux, in my opinion, is the U.K.’s greatest gift to the world. He is a national treasure, and a truly great representative of us Brits. Louis Theroux is, currently, probably the most well renowned documentary filmmaker in the U.K, and famous for his realistic investigative approach to his subjects. The best news is, he’s back! His last documentary series aired a year or so ago (‘L.A. Stories’) and he has come back to television with the two part ‘By Reason of Insanity’ – a look into state psychiatric hospitals – which aired in March. Last week, ‘Transgender Kids’ aired on BBC2 – and garnered plenty of responses from social media.

Louis Theroux has written and presented over 40 documentaries for and under the BBC. His signature style is to spend an extended amount of time with his interviewees – becoming a part of their lives. The documentary subjects themselves are often sources of taboo (neo-nazis, swingers, paedophiles for example) or people who are considered to be in the public eye (Chris Eubank, Jimmy Savile or Paul Daniels & Debbie McGee). Despite his tendency to choose subjects which could be perceived as antagonistic,Theroux engages with his subjects and allows them to explain themselves. Frequently, Theroux will simply let scenes play out around him and simply watch – the result being the highly comical format which is documentaries are famed for.

Honestly, you should try and watch all of Louis Theroux’s documentaries. Most of them clock in at about the 45-60minute mark – originally most of them were designed for television viewing. As there are so many, however, I thought I would give you my top 5. Most of them are available on either BBC iPlayer or Netflix, so if you have a spare hour I’d would highly recommend the following…

(in chronological order)

Born Again Christians (1998)

When Louis met Debbie and Paul (2001)

This documentary is part of a two season series where Louis met certain celebrities of the time. I suspect that most people would argue that ‘When Louis met Jimmy Savile’ is the best doc to come out of the series, in light of recent allegations being true, but I actually prefer ‘Debbie & Paul’. For those who weren’t old enough, or didn’t watch T.V. in the 80s/90s, Paul Daniels is a famous magician in the U.K. and in 1988 he married his long-time magic assistant Debbie McGee, who was 20 years his junior. The documentary showcases their lives together, as Debbie prepares to take her dance troupe on tour – financed by Paul. Louis makes his intentions quite clear from the start – he wants to understand the nature of Paul & Debbie’s financial relationship, and to investigate how their relationship actually works vs the public perception of it. What he discovers is far from what he could have imagined, and the normalcy of their lives is the reason that this episode works so well.

The Most Hated Family in America / America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (2007/2011)

Possibly the most famous documentary/documentaries Louis Theroux has produced, ‘The Most Hated Family in America’ follows Louis meeting the Westboro Baptist Church – a hard-line Christian church in America. Infamous for their extremist views on gay rights, Louis spends a few weeks living with the family and attempting to hold an interview with their leader – Fred Phelps. Due to the church’s status as a hate group and their frequent picketing of soldier’s funerals, the documentary gained a lot of attention – and for good reason. Theroux spends a lot of time with the younger members of the family, allowing them time and space to explain why they agree with the church’s hate views. Whilst Fred Phelps (with whom Theroux spends relatively little time) is clearly manipulating those around him, the interviews with the younger family members are the most revealing. It’s a truly interesting and uncomfortable experience which provokes ample thought about hate preaching, and what religion actually means.

 In ‘America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis’, Louis goes back to Kansas four years later to catch up with the family and see how things have changed. It’s a fantastic follow up, and reiterates the dangers of extremism.

A Place for Paedophiles (2009)

One of the most disturbing and challenging documentaries I have ever seen. ‘A Place for Pedophiles’ illustrates the rehabilitation processes for pedophiles in Coalinga State Hospital. The hospital focuses on the recovery of pedophiles, in the hope that they may someday be able to live ‘normal’ lives. The documentary could have been a witch-hunt, where the audience are invited to ‘point-and-be-revolted’, but it manages to avoid this format entirely. Louis makes no judgement of these men – for better or for worse – and simply lets them tell their stories to the audience. Some are horrendous, some are exactly what we expect to hear when we think of pedophilia. However, ‘A Place for Pedophiles’ allows the audience to look at these men as human beings, not as the monsters we may initially view them as. There are no questions answered, at least maybe not in the way we hope there would be. I think that’s possibly the most intriguing part of the doc though. Sometimes we don’t have the answers, and that can be an incredibly uncomfortable truth to learn. Quite rightly, this is one of the best documentaries ever made.

Transgender Kids (2015)

Theroux’s latest documentary. Whilst I wouldn’t rate it as highly in terms of the structure and engagement with the subjects – ‘Transgender Kids’ discusses a very real and important issue for many children across the world today. It’s worth watching to see Louis interacting with his subjects in an entirely different way. These are not the traditionally difficult subjects we are have become used to seeing in Theroux’s documentaries. They aren’t extremists or violent. They are children, trying to work out who they are. If anything, ‘Transgender Kids’ enforces the idea that all children and teenagers are just trying to be happy with who they are, and gender is a massive part of that. Louis speaks with a number of different parents, all trying to negotiate with their children. It’s hugely inspirational, and needs to be seen by audiences around the world. Again, like many of his docs, there is no simple answer given – but important questions are raised. Which, in all honesty, is far more thought provoking.

Special mention – ‘Extreme Love:Autism’. Exceptionally moving, and a fantastic insight into the world of autism. A strong contender for Theroux’s most voyeuristic documentary, and challenges ideas about the filmmakers role when producing a documentary.

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