WHY LOUIS THEROUX DARES TO GO WHERE OTHER DOCOS FEAR TO TREAD
This month a new Louis Theroux work comes to cinemas. It is a double bill: an hourlong documentary, Heroin Town, from a three-part series set in the US, and a 36minute overview of Theroux’s career, approach and methods.
Theroux has tackled the subject of addiction before, and says he needed to approach it in a different way this time. Heroin Town is set in a city with a problem of addiction that’s part of a United States epidemic whose causes are clearly established.
“There’s no ambiguity about that, it’s acknowledged universally that’s what’s happened,” Theroux says. It is the “hangover of rampant overprescription of legal opiates and painkillers” that has led to an epidemic of dependency. “And once they tightened up the prescription of the opiates, there was a mass migration into heroin.”
Theroux doesn’t investigate the background to this any further. And he didn’t want to tell the story from the law enforcement point of view, he says, “but from the side of the community of users”.
Making Heroin Town began with what he calls “our usual MO”, initiated by a research team. “When I say team it sounds like 11 football players, but it was actually just one guy, (associate producer) Oli Roy, later joined by our director, Dan Child,” he says.
Eventually they decided to confine themselves to a relatively small place: Huntington, West Virginia, population 49,000, which has 13 times the US average of fatal overdoses.
Having determined the location, the next step was for Roy and Child to find documentary subjects.
“They meet people, maybe make some contact with law enforcement, emergency services, and visit the needle exchange, get a sense of what characters we might be able to get on board,” he says.
What they try to look for, Theroux says, are “contributors who have some vitality, who are right there at the coalface of the problem but not so beaten down by life and by addiction that they are sort of supine or incapable of expressing anything”.
A few weeks later, Theroux and his crew arrive, ready to start shooting.
“That’s when I meet people,” he says. “And that’s why the films have a sort of fresh, organic quality. It’s a sleight of hand in a way. I’m meeting people for the first time who very often my director or AP may have already met.”
The subjects are prepared, Theroux says, in that they have a sense of what the film is about, and they know they are going to be on camera.
“Then we roll up, and it’s a case of filming fairly intensively,” he says.
That’s how the filmmakers get “a lot of the things that give it a sort of freshness and an unselfconscious dimension … Those moments of candidness or of the unexpected”.
He mentions an incident that takes place early in Heroin Town, when he goes to visit a young woman called Katillia, an addict who lives with her boyfriend, Alvin.
“Perhaps one of my favourites – favourites is an odd word – one of the most revealing moments in Heroin Town is when we go to Katillia’s house, and her boyfriend’s there and he leaves the room,” he says.
Katillia then takes the opportunity to tell Theroux something he says was entirely unexpected – something that gave him a bleak new perspective on the relationship.
Why does Theroux think she decides to speak to him then, as she is being filmed?
“She obviously knew she was on camera but was reaching out for help,” he says.
“I think it’s complicated to try to explain exactly what she was doing. I think at some level she was looking for allies against Alvin. At the same time perhaps she was more ambivalent about him than she let on.”
There’s another scene in which Alvin and Katillia suggest that Theroux comes with them when they go to buy drugs.
“I was very surprised when they say, ‘We’re going to score, do you want to come with us?’” Theroux says. “And I thought, well this is very immersive. I don’t want to sound too odd about it, but it is a sort of privilege to be invited into that level of intimacy and see things that reveal a hidden side of that world.”
Theroux does find himself wondering why people agree to be interviewed and instigate certain activities on camera.
“I think there are different impulses at play,” he says.
“I think some people enjoy being filmed; there’s no guilt or shame attached to it, and some people take pleasure in memorialising themselves and their lives. I think you could also argue that there’s some self-romanticism going on, that they are in a weird way perhaps inviting people in to share what they may experience as an outlaw existence.
“I think there’s also a sense in which they are reaching out for hope, they feel that somehow by throwing open the windows and the doors and showing the world what’s going on, that it could help them change the situation.”
In 2000, Theroux spent time with British television and radio personality Jimmy Savile for his When Louis Met … series. After his death in 2011, Savile was found to have been a sexual abuser of children for decades.
“When I made the original documentary, I had a sense that we hadn’t seen everything. I spoke about this at the time: I had a sense that I hadn’t figured out what his secret was.” Theroux asked Savile about rumours that he was a paedophile and received an ambiguous answer.
Last year, Theroux made another program, Savile (which screens on BBC Knowledge in December), as a kind of mea culpa, an acknowledgment of his own failure.
“Looking back, what’s interesting is how the clues are there,” Theroux says. “There’s something in malefactors, people who are involved in doing harm to others, that actually wants to come clean, that wants to make themselves OK with what they are doing, and that hints at the truth.
“It’s interesting, it’s almost as if, deceptive as he was, Jimmy Savile couldn’t help leaving a kind of trail of evidence, of clues that only became clear after the fact.”
Heroin Town is showing at Hoyts Cinema Tweed City
I THINK THERE ARE DIFFERENT IMPULSES AT PLAY. I THINK SOME PEOPLE ENJOY BEING FILMED; THERE’S NO GUILT OR SHAME ATTACHED TO IT
Louis Theroux’s Heroin Town is set in Huntington, West Virginia, which has 13 times the US average of fatal overdoses.