Robert Hanks' Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE'S PROBABLY room for a systematic study of the place of wildlife documentaries in international politics. Making films about another country's fauna has become a useful way of signalling rapprochement - the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War were followed in short order by Realms of the Russian Bear; likewise, friendlier relations with Tehran, and the official lifting of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, has led to an edition of The Natural World (BBC2) called "Iran - Secrets of the North", which will be followed by "Iran - Jewels of the South".

Whether this is a two-way relationship, I don't know. In Iran they have leopards, wild boar, bears, camels, scorpions, geckos, unusually large salamanders, flamingos, and the Scops owl ("small enough to fit in a teacup," said the voice-over). We have voles and blue-tits, which is hardly the same.

Even so, I imagine the Iranian authorities were well-satisfied with their side of the bargain, since what emerged amounted to a tourist brochure for the country. The tone was set by Ali Karbalaei, the very likeable presenter, who began by explaining: "There is much more to my country than religion, oil and deserts. Persian carpets, for instance." Good to see the cliches exploded, then.

The British viewer may be less pleased, though. In this film, little was explained, or even effectively marvelled at. Instead, it was a matter of pointing the camera and saying, "Isn't that lovely?". Well yes, it is lovely, and it is expertly filmed. But that doesn't seem to justify all the trouble and expense. Perhaps I've just got a bad case of wildlife fatigue, but this seemed pointlessly ornamental and time-filling.

It's harder to glean any information about relations between this country and China from Shanghai Vice (C4). With its penultimate episode, Phil Agland's immaculately beautiful and thorough series reached a kind of climax, when parts of the body of a young schoolteacher, Zhang Jing, were fished out of the river. Her boyfriend, Chen, a party official with responsibility for local schools, was questioned: "I just want the facts," said one interrogator, gently. "I hope you will co-operate." A pause. "How did you kill her?"

The interrogation was a marvellous piece of film-making, the impassivity and posturing of the policemen contrasted with the baffled agitation on Chen's face. But, as before, the sheer smoothness and artistry were distracting. When the camera sat behind Chen's head, to receive the policemen's glares, you had to wonder: did they interrupt the questioning to get it in position? Was this a reconstruction rather than the real thing?

Chen confessed, and was sentenced to death. The trial and appeal were filmed with a deadpan air, a refusal to dramatise that made the whole business seem almost innocuous. But the most harrowing scene came after his execution, as Zhang's parents discovered his death had brought them no satisfaction. To their minds, the justice system had failed them. Their daughter's torso had still not been found. Zhang's mother wept; and no amount of art could conceal the raw horror she was facing.