Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Letting people speak for themselves

Another suggestion from Martin Duwell, this time a television review by the relentless and merciless A A Gill, which includes:

Indian Hill Railways could be in my top-10 list of programmes I’d lose an eye not to have to watch. The romance of steam completely passed me by. I’m a locophobic. All that Betjemanesque whimsy for branch lines and unmanned halts is simply ghastly. I can just remember steam trains for real. They were filthy and they stank. It’s a bit of Englishness I find as embarrassing as it is dull. Neither can I abide the soft nostalgia for the Raj — that imposed reverie of happy hot days playing at empire. So the combination of old India and Tariq the Tank Engine is deeply unpalatable. All it was missing was Michael Palin.

I began watching with a grim resistance, but it sort of crept up on me with observance and careful charm. The railway was a linear motif that chuntered its way through the stories of the people who work around it. It became a chance to look at lives with a care and tenderness rare in documentaries about foreigners. We tend to the anthropological, comic or sentimental when filming abroad. This was oddly old-fashioned, like Grierson or early Lindsay Anderson. It was a programme that began with what all socialist documentaries used to begin with: a respect for the dignity of lives that run uphill.

I was as much touched by the way it was made, and the assumptions about people, and the role and purpose of the television eye, as I was by the subject. Most television documentaries try to elicit empathy for or inquisitiveness about individuals. They rarely attempt to use the individual as a candle to illuminate the human condition. This was well done, not least because it was so unexpected.

The final observation resonates with William Dalrymple's aims in Nine Lives, that is, with the desire to ease the narrator or "eye" out of the frame, and so let the subjects of the piece emerge in their own right and on their own terms. I am also reminded of a much earlier work, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, which too had the knack of letting people speak for themselves. Like Dalrymple, Heat Moon was in the mood for listening.

Source: A A Gill. "All the better to eat you with, my dear." The Sunday Times 28 March 2010.