THEROUX DELVES DEEP INTO PSYCHE
HE’S the self- eff acing Englishman who has transcended geeky journo to become a master documentary maker with so much clout he’s being investigated by Scientology.
But ask Louis Theroux what he’s feared most in more than 15 years covering subjects including America’s worst prisons, neo- Nazi culture, white supremacists and paedophilia and you get a surprising answer.
“Funnily enough, the most danger I felt was when I did a story about exotic animals kept as pets in America,” he says.
“I kept hearing, ‘ I could be in a cage with a tiger all day, but I won’t go near a chimpanzee’. The cliché I heard a lot was that they’ll rip your arm off and beat you to death with it.
“And I don’t want to discredit or cast aspersions on the chimpanzee population, but I think they are so bored and so intelligent and they live to be about 60 years old and they just get angry.
“When it was time to meet a chimpanzee I got very, very anxious because they have the strength of 10 men, so I hear. They bite your genitals off , I hear, and they bite your nose off , and because I have quite a big nose, I always thought one might see my nose and it might be too tempting to resist.”
Theroux’s greatest gift is his gentle, unassuming mask of neutrality, which sees him ask questions about the “elephant in the room”. His subjects may baulk, but they answer. In the case of the fi rst of his two upcoming documentaries, By Reason of Insanity, the result is raw, unfl inching storytelling. Theroux spends a month immersed in Ohio’s State Psychiatric Hospitals, where his subjects are incarcerated having been found not guilty of horrifi c crimes “by reason of insanity”.
As schizophrenic Jonathan calmly, clinically and without a trace of empathy recounts slitting his father’s throat seven years earlier in a paranoid rage, Theroux confesses part of him wants to see “more grief”. It’s deeply confronting. And you can’t look away.
“This is a young man who is on the one hand obliging and answers the questions and appears to be sincerely attempting to engage with me in a dialogue, and then on the other hand he stabbed his father to death,” Theroux says.
“Towards the end of the interview, rather than pretend this is all quite normal, I called attention to the fact that he is talking about something that is absolutely hideous and yet wasn’t showing much emotion.”