Marcel Theroux - It's for people who are intrigued by their planet.
I talk to Unreported World journalist and Documentary Filmmaker Marcel Theroux about character, culture, and what makes you go 'wow'.
Do you have a need to make an impact with your work, or are you just trying to tell a story?
I think I go to satisfy my own curiosity. Unreported World in particular is popular with a lot of viewers because they feel, rightly, that it raises awareness of issues that don’t get covered elsewhere in the news, things that one might feel outraged about. But I didn’t set out to change the world, in fact the more I see of the world the more sceptical I am that any of our attempts to change it are really going to improve it. But that’s just the cynicism of a middle-aged man.
Do you think it’s impossible for the world to get better?
In broad terms, I’m very interested in the philosopher John Gray, whose idea is that he doesn’t believe in progress. But at a simple level, I do. For example, I just got back from Mongolia where we were making a film about air pollution, and it struck me that air pollution’s a really important subject because it’s so manifestly soluble. There’s no reason why we should be five yards from traffic belching out PM2.5 that’s going to give us lung cancer. That seems like an eminently solvable problem. And to contradict what I said earlier, that is something we can really achieve progress on.
During In Search of Wabi Sabi, your musings on whether there was space in Japanese culture for ‘me-time’ made me think of the space you inhabit in your own documentaries. I think you’re very much a character.
Well it’s a tool for the job isn’t it? There are times when some reserve is appropriate, and times where the film’s better when you put yourself on the line a little bit. I once made a Guardian video blog about poetry in Liverpool, and I was really reluctant to do it because I’m a writer - I could really fall on my arse going to a poetry slam and failing really badly. But all those things actually made it, because I had something at stake, and I do think making films involves a degree of personal discomfort on behalf of the reporter. But I never really wanted my films to be about me, I regard myself as an instrument to help people open up. But if people aren’t being straight with you – you call them up on it.
I was an uncomprehending stranger in a culture of equals
In those stories, by requiring something of you, you become an element that can change as well – so we see you develop.
That’s right, that’s a very classic storytelling principle – you have a protagonist who sets off on a journey and undergoes some transformation. I guess there are some stories where I’ve been the protagonist. Like the climate change film (The End of the World As We Know It). I was a man who wanted to go out come to some sort of understanding – ditto with Wabi Sabi. That’s kind of basic story maths. And you just want to create tension in whether that person is going to succeed in their quest. And I suppose as I get older I see different strands of my life coalescing, and I think I put things I’ve learnt from (writing) novels into TV, and by se versa.
In both The End of the World As We Know It, and In Search of Wabi Sabi, you start your documentary journey stating clearly that you’re there to find out about something you don’t know much about. Do you really go without an agenda? You do sometimes repeat the phrase “To find what I came for”.
I think there is an element of disingenuousness about reporting like that. (You can’t be) completely ignorant and know nothing because you’d miss out on the story. But both those journeys were genuine. For Wabi Sabi it was simply ‘what is Wabi Sabi?’ – I understood that it was a key idea for Japanese aesthetics, but I didn’t really know what it meant. The End of the World As We Know It was made quite a while ago, I think 2005, and there was less reason to be persuaded about climate change then than there is now, and I had to learn – man-made climate change was real. But I don’t know how much I’d thought about it before. I’d made some films for Channel 4 chose me because I was a non-expert, which is very unfashionable now. But there’s something in having an avatar who goes out with ignorance and gets enlightened.
A favourite topic for YouTube comments on the Japanese film was your position as the ‘white man abroad’ who comes in to wander round a foreign culture. Are you ever wary about your position as an outsider?
I probably was in the Wabi Sabi film. But what would have been the appropriate ethnicity to cover that story? I didn’t see any colonial history in Japan, I was an uncomprehending stranger in a culture of equals. But someone did say it was similar to a Japanese person coming to the UK and making a film about chivalry – I’d watch that.
I never look at YouTube comments about my films, that would be a crazy thing to do. It’d be like reading bad reviews. I don’t read any reviews really. I did for my last book, my wife persuaded me because actually they were all good. Although I feel that if you don’t read the bad reviews you can’t really read the good ones. And ten comments down on YouTube you’re really dealing with swivel-eyed loons.
You do reviewing work yourself, recently of the first translation of Jin Yong’s Kung Fu epic A Hero Born. How do you find writing those?
Oh, much easier. With reviewing you’ve just got a responsibility to be as honest as you can about whether the book made an impression, whether you liked it, and to try and be fair. I do reviews because I love reading. Maybe I’ve got an inflated idea about literary culture’s importance, but I think you do it conscientiously. I hate giving bad reviews as however bad it is, you know someone’s slaved on it.
When watching and reading bits of your body of work, I was struck by the many different methods of story-making that you employ. In some films, you’re a travel writer; you’ve learned to herd sheep, you’ve paddled along Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia, and cooked sausages in the volcanic magma of Eyjafjallajökull. What value does this kind of work still hold for readers today?
Tonlé Sap was just something shot on a flip video cam on the river – little moments of colour. In all those cases I was writing travel articles for Guardian or Lonely Planet – so I think they were little sparks, mosaic tiles on broadsheet pages. I do those things for my friends or people I like – I don’t really have an ideal reader. These only exist in the ether because the internet exists, ten years ago they would have been made and disappeared like chip-wrappers. So I don’t want you to attribute more to them than was intended, they were stories of the day.
When you travel to another country you can enter alternative versions of reality
In some of your longer films you seem go to understand the place, the culture, the time – the people. It’s not quite travel writing where you’re just there to observe, it seems as if you’re trying to say something.
Well primarily I hope they’re a good watch, and I hope people are gripped by the dilemma of the central character. But (on larger films) I really enjoy that sense of collaborative craftsmanship when you work in a team. So much of what I do is solitary, I like when we’re a team, and we’re in China and we want to tell the best possible story about Pop music, we’re also hoping that that story will also tell us something about the communist party, about the limits of free speech in China today. And I presume that everyone’s as curious about the world as I am. If I did have an audience in mind – it’s just for people who are intrigued by their planet.
China’s Underground Music Scene does explore what it says on the tin. It’s a little dip into a world many people have no idea about. But in your process, do you go out with a political edge already in mind to colour it with?
Depends on the story, but with China you can’t go there without thinking: it’s a one-party state, and the Communist Party is keen to control significant aspects of its citizens’ lives. If you didn’t know that then you’re naïve and you shouldn’t be going. But you’re not going to get people to say that on camera, so how do you tell that story? It’s really tricky working in authoritarian countries, but we still need to try and do it because it behoves us to know what’s going on in China.
Do you find that you have that responsibility then to tell both sides of that coin? The topical, and the personal stories?
When I’m writing a travel piece, something that’s soft – I’m always interested in the politics. When I’m making something that’s more overtly political, I’m always interested in the more Nat Geo sides of life – the spring festival where someone’s throwing milk in the air to placate the sky god Tengri, which is what happens in Mongolia at springtime.
It’s kind of an article of faith in Telly that you find and follow these characters. People whose lives and goals illustrate the story you’re telling. Someone wants something, goes out to get it, and ends up with a win lose or draw. That’s the grammar of all stories from Gilgamesh to Wife Swap.
I don’t think people realise how much they’re giving up when they let cameras into their lives.
Do you think that British people should be going out and absorbing these stories that adds a human dimension to the news?
I’m very wary of the word ‘should’. I don’t know what people should do, and I don’t presume to tell them. There are things that I’m interested in, and I feel lucky that I’m able to work in this industry and tell stories that I find interesting – I can only hope that they spark a connection with other people.
Knowing how President Xi has changed term limits for his presidency is a really significant change of policy in China – it’s amazing to me. But I feel like you can learn as much about a place from reading a novel as from watching a very worthy piece of current affairs journalism. And it’s often a more nuanced sense from a great piece of travel writing, or a soap opera, or an art exhibition.
This is going to sound naïve, but I feel like I just think about the best way of telling the story – you have a sense of responsibility that the story shouldn’t be trivial, the story’s interesting because it shines a light on some wider facet of life. But a seemingly trivial story could do that. I was really proud of the story we made about China’s lonely hearts, the men who’ve been left without partners because of the one child policy. And it’s just about a guy trying to get a date on one level, but on another it’s about a huge demographic crisis which is going to be formative in the story of China over the next 10, 20 years. I love that kind of story. It resonates: the universal desire to have a partner. But at the same time, it’s a story that can only be told in China. You don’t always find stories you love as much as that, but that’s what I look for.
You’ve said before that one of the romances of travel, is that it’s also time travel. What do you enjoy about that?
I’m fascinated by the idea that the world that we live in is contingent. It didn’t have to turn out the way it did. But we behave as though it was all inevitable, that we were going to end up here in 2018 with the President of the US that we’ve got and the Brexit that we’ve got. And I feel like in a small way, when you travel to another country you can enter alternative versions of reality – you realise things could have been very different. For better or worse.
One of the places you’ve returned to again and again is Russia. What keeps drawing you back?
I impulsively decided to study Russian when I was 13, and still haven’t mastered it. It’s one of the benefits of age actually, there are things in your life that you’ve done for a really long time. You know, that’s what Gong Fu, Kung Fu means by the way. It’s a skill you’ve spent a really long time working at; Russia’s one of my Gong Fu. It mystifies me, but it’s like a soap opera I started watching and am now thoroughly addicted to.
And I’ve been interested in it for long enough to see when it goes out of fashion and you can’t get a show commissioned about Russia for love or money. Or times like now when people think, wrongly, that Russia holds the key to Western democracy. But I think it’s a vast, amazing, amazing place. And journalists should, using the word now, have those passions. The things that you’re happy to be a nerd about and pursue – that’s a way you can bring value back to the beleaguered industry.
I look at my career, this kind of weird kaleidoscope of things I do, and see how certain things inform the others. But sometimes I think I know just too much about Russia, you’re making films for people who don’t know who Lenin and Stalin are as well. And that’s why I like the Reggie Yates films so much. He makes films that you can be into without having to have read Robert Conquest or whoever – it’s brilliant TV.
I wish I knew the UK better – I think we all do. It seems like we’re people who thought we knew each other, and didn’t.
What’s your attraction to film rather than print journalism?
Alan Bennet has this line in his first memoir; he talks about how philanderers and TV cameramen have access to a primary range of experiences. Philanderers wake up in bed after bed and get a first-hand view of people’s lives – and I think the same sort of thing’s true of TV journalism. You can’t make a film about mega-families in Russia or air pollution in Ulaanbaatar without going to a place, clapping eyes on it, talking to someone who’s involved and absorbing the information in a primary way. Whereas you can sit at a desk, make some phone calls and regurgitate someone else’s experiences. It feels as if you go to the motherlode with TV. Of course it’s always filtered, but I love that you actually go there and see it with your own eyes.
Do you ever find that that’s an invasive process?
Yes it is. I don’t think people realise how much they’re giving up when they let cameras into their lives. There are all kinds of people working in TV, and the majority of people I’ve worked with have been sensitive. There has been someone who told us incidentally that they were HIV positive in the making of a film, not realising the implications of sharing that with a TV crew. So we didn’t put it in and we spoke to this person’s carer to make it alright.
It’s the Heisenberg thing isn’t it? I’ve just said you want to go and have the primary experience of seeing someone’s real life, but the minute you bring TV cameras into it - what are you really seeing? And how much does it change because of you? But it is invasive, and you have to acknowledge that. Although your job as a reporter is to go and find someone willing to bear witness.
Do you find that your work is different from your brother’s?
Louis’ got a very particular style and chooses very particular subjects. He got an amazing TV persona which is actually him. The big difference between me and Louis, is that he never does a piece to camera. No one ever notices this. You feel a great rapport with him and yet that’s all done without him breaking the 4th wall. It’s an amazing gift, and he’s never taking advantage of the privilege he has of addressing the camera. And we do, at Unreported World, we do. I think we do it because we have less time, we’re trying to convey quite complicated stories often happening overseas in 24 minutes.
Why are you more interested in working overseas?
When we talk about my quote-unquote career like this, it seems like there’s more rhyme and reason than there was. I’m a freelancer – so to some extent if work comes up I’ll take it. But I did a degree in international relations, I’m very interested in global politics. Although more and more I’m interested in the UK. I wish I knew the country better – I think we all do. It seems like we’re people who thought we knew each other and didn’t.
Do you think people are less interested in journalism in England?
Journalism’s quite a beleaguered industry, you can’t give The Evening Standard away today. People still get their news, but we may have compromised on quality. The Guardian’s still a great paper, The Times is still a great paper – it’s just sketchier for journalists to make a living. And it’s a much more interesting time to be making TV; you need fewer people, you’ve got lighter equipment, it looks better, you’ve got more intimacy – there’s a democratisation of the form as well, people can make their own stories. The resources you have at your desk now for seeing things, the idea that my films are on YouTube so people can watch it – is amazing. I’m really interested in boxing, in the 90’s how would you ever know about Jack Dempsy? Now you’re only a few clicks away.
Why should we watch Unreported World then, with so much choice?
Because when you turn on you go ‘holy smoke that’s amazing!’ Danny Bogado who directed India’s Blind Daters said to me ‘there’s a difference between interesting and wow’. Interesting’s dangerous – you want to be in wow. And I think he’s absolutely right. 30 years a slave, here’s a man who was kept harvesting salt off islands in South Korea for 30 years. Wow. It’s harder and harder to get people to watch interesting – you never have problems getting people to watch wow. And the Mongolian film is wow, it looks unbelievable, the smog, drone shots coming down on this frozen city, people living in gers, yurts, burning coal – it looks like a dystopian film, like Bladerunner.
There is a film I’d really love to make in China at the moment on martial arts – but I don’t really want to jinx it.