Louis Theroux’s Ten Most Revealing Documentaries

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If ever there was a journalist who delivers great stories and cracks us up, it’s Louis Theroux. Whenever he finds himself amidst dodgy characters and frightening situations, his nerdy look and his unworldly approach make him come across like a private-school boy lost in the world’s ghetto. You can literally absorb his unease when faced with intimidating people or extreme circumstances, but it won’t stop you from laughing at/with him: His innocence and cheek is what make him the amazing journalist he is. His presence isn’t threatening or haughty—on the contrary, people tend to feel at ease with him, and he is genuinely interested in gaining a better understanding of his subjects.

He started out writing for publications like Spy magazine before taking his thoughts in front of the camera with BBC’s Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends (1998-2000). Following the success of his weird weekends away with born-again Christians, survivalists and swingers, he continued with a new program, When Louis Met… (2000-2002), in which he followed British celebrities in their daily activities. He continued to film specials for the BBC Two, concentrating on various social issues and human interest stories. March saw the release of his 26th feature length BBC Two documentary By Reason of Insanity. He spent one month in Ohio’s mental hospitals, which house patients who were found NGRI—Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity—for the crimes they have committed. On his official website, Louis stated:

“I won’t give you all the details of what I found inside the hospital. You can watch the shows for that. I will just say that it is a harrowing, moving, occasionally funny portrait of a very varied and vulnerable patient population.”

As if this subject matter wasn’t difficult enough, Louis then went on to San Francisco to meet children with gender dysphoria. In this second documentary, he discusses the gravity of the decision the parents of Transgender Kids face and offers viewers personal, educational and medical insight into hormone therapy, puberty blockers and the overall pressures and concerns of the subjects and their family members. Although this program can be hard to digest at times, it is an extremely important one that has the power to be a real eye-opener to those who are quick to judge. Once you hear five-year-old Camille (formerly Sebastian) firmly state that she never wants to go back to being a boy, you will come to understand that her position is more than merely a phase of childish exploration or confusion.

In order to celebrate Theroux’s new specials and his past journalistic endeavours, we’ve put together a list of his best documentaries so far. Brace yourself—it’s gonna get weird.

10. BBC Two Special: Law and Disorder in Lagos (October 10, 2010)

To the untrained eye, the Nigerian streets of Lagos are ruled by chaos. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the importance of the transportation union and the power it holds over private individuals and stall holders, you will come to realize that there is an intricate, albeit corrupt system at play. Louis travels to Lagos in the hopes of meeting one of the city’s king players, namely “MC”, a transport union executive who seems to enjoy the same kind of status Snoop Dog does in the U.S. Louis is introduced to MC, his eager spokesman Mammok and various “Area Boys,” who offer him a strange glimpse into the inner-workings of Lagos’ politics.

9. Weird Weekends: Porn (January 29, 1998)

Most of us have had a little sneaky peak at one porn film or another in our life time (nothing to be ashamed about). Suffice to say, what we see on screen is merely a collage of many hours spent finding the perfect angle and waiting around for the obligatory money shot. Louis travelled to L.A. for a behind-the-scenes look at the porn industry, its actors and the many challenges they face. Being a porn actor/actress may be seem like a dream job for excited wannabes, but the reality often isn’t all that glamorous. Louis is invited on set of a porn film to learn about “wood problems” and “inconclusives” and even auditions for a film himself.

8. When Louis Met The Hamiltons (December 11, 2001)

The Hamiltons may not mean much to our U.S. readers, but they made quite the name for themselves in the UK back in the early noughties. Neil Hamilton), a former Conservative MP, was disgraced after his involvement in the Cash-for-Questions-Affair in 1994. By 2001, Neil and his wife were ready to reinvent their public image and appeared on When Louis Met. There’s a contradictive feel throughout this episode—Neil and Christine make themselves out to be ordinary, down-to-earth people and yet specific circumstances may give the impression they are quite happy to bask in the limelight—even if it’s hostile.

7. Weird Weekends: Indian Gurus (October 2, 2000)

Curious to learn more about Westerners and their incessant search for enlightenment, Louis travels to India to meet followers of Ganapathi Sanchidananda, Amma, Osho and various other illuminated folk. Former professor Joseph “Deepak” Vidmar introduces Louis to various strange meditation techniques involving screaming, jumping, a form of aggressive Pranayama (breathing exercises) and even dancing. Watching Louis jump around with snot flying from his nose is priceless. He then moves on to follow Ramanan and 400 other Amma disciples on a pilgrimage around India, trying to answer the question: “What is the status of a guru? Are they gods, are they humans, are they somewhere in between?”

6. When Louis Met Jimmy (April 13, 2000)

Jimmy Savile is said to be a lot of things. On the positive side, he is said to have been the first DJ to use two turntables for continuous music; on the negative side, he is said to be a pedophile. When Louis asked his childhood hero to appear on his program, he was pleasantly surprised by Jimmy’s willingness to do so. Looking “quite hip hop and rap,” Jimmy welcomed Louis into his pink/grey Leeds apartment and his estates in Scarborough and Glencoe. They soon find themselves at a difference of opinion in regard to what kind of discussions should be had during the interview. Obviously wary of “salacious tabloids,” he urges Louis to focus on the positive, instead of winding him up:

“I’m odd. You’re different. That’s not a bad double. Between us, we should be able to do something.”

5. Louis, Martin & Michael (BBC Two Special) (November 16, 2003)

Louis sets out to produce an official documentary about Michael Jackson but is met with nothing but obstacles along the way. Michael’s acting spokesman, Uri Geller, is suspicious of Louis’ interview techniques and decides to give Martin Bashir the rights to the documentary instead, forcing Louis to take a different approach. As Louis prepares to meet several people close to Michael Jackson, they all start dropping out. He finally gets lucky when he meets Michael’s personal magician, Majestik Magnificent, who arranges a bizarre interview with Joseph Jackson, the Jackson Five patriarch. Following the release of Bashir’s controversial documentary, Louis asks Uri Geller for an apology. We’re still waiting.

4. Gangsta Rap (Weird Weekends) (October 30, 2000)

Louis travels to the “Dirty South” to learn more about the Gangsta Rap industry. He starts out at ForeFront Entertainment studio where he meets the rapper Q-T-Pie. She invites him into her recording booth and teaches Louis a little something about “Ghetto-rectomies.” Not entirely convinced by Q-T-Pie & co. being actual “gangsters,” he travels to Mississippi where he meets former “pimp,” Mellow T. Not only is Louis introduced to Mellow’s story and his music, he’s also introduced to his hood and its corner boys. At a press conference for Master P, Louis meets radio show host Wild Wayne, who invites him to drop a beat on his morning program. You’ve got to love a man who isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself!

3. The Most Hated Family in America (BBC Two Special) (April 1, 2007)

The Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred “Gramps” Phelps, honestly believes that “God Hates Fags.” And since the USA is tolerant of homosexuals, God hates America. Louis spent some time at the Westboro Baptist Church and was immediately condemned for agreeing with the fact that “it is okay to be gay. It’s an innocent, alternative lifestyle.” The church, which is almost entirely made up of Phelps’ family members, regularly picket at military funerals, proudly holding up signs stating obscenities such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fag Marines” and “Don’t Worship the Dead”—and not just in their local Kansas. Even some of the youngest members of the church are brought along to picket funerals. When the passengers of a passing car throw a soft-drink at a six-year-old member, mother Shirley Phelps-Roper finds it incomprehensible how someone could possibly react in such a manner.

2. Louis and the Nazis (BBC Two Special) (December 21, 2003)

Although we all wish the Nazis and their mentalities were a dreadful thing of the past, they are still very much alive and spewing hate. Louis travels to California to meet white supremacist Tom Metzger, the founder of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), who thinks he’s way more attractive than Denzel Washington. The group was said to have been involved in the murder of the 28-year-old Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw and went bankrupt after the trial in 1988. Louis then goes on to meet the white nationalist pop group Prussian Blue, consisting of eleven-year-old twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede. They are managed and home-schooled by their twisted, vile mother April Gaede, whose idea of fun playtime is drawing Swastikas on her kitchen floor. The New Zealand Listener described the documentary perfectly: “Louis and the Nazis is the most brilliant TV programme I wish I’d never seen.”

In an interview with The Mirror in 2012, Lamb and Lynx stated that they are no longer racist and are now “laid-back liberals celebrating the joys of ethnic diversity.”

1. Louis Behind Bars (BBC Two Special) (January 13, 2008)

San Quentin State Prison in California is the oldest prison in California, with the largest death row in the United States. Some of the SQ inmates have been in and out of prison their entire lives. One such inmate is David Silver, who openly speaks to Louis Theroux about his crimes and his outlook on life now that he is serving 521 years plus 11 life sentences. He was locked up in a juvenile facility when he was eleven years old and didn’t get out until he was twenty. Once he did, he turned back to a life of crime—that’s all he knew. Louis spends two weeks at San Quentin and learned more about the rules and politics on the inside. He is baffled to find that the segregation of races is extremely strict, even more so when he is told that you can get stabbed over something as stupid as borrowing dominoes from an inmate of another race. But he also gets to explore “positive” stories—the forming of relationships between inmates and an almost friendly bond between prison guards and convicts—so we’re glad to see it’s not all just Pornstache types out there. This documentary was described by The Guardian as one of Theroux’s “finest films” with 5.8 million viewers when it was first released.

Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist, co-author of The Pink Boots and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Facebook. She likes getting creative in padm?sana.