Television Review

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The Independent Culture
A RECURRENT THEME in the testimony of people who have found themselves caught up in conflict is the strange and shocking moment when they realise that what they have in common with their enemy, apart from a pressing desire to do harm, is a shared humanity - that their adversary, too, has parents, and children, and a sweet tooth and an overdraft at the bank. The sensation is often unwelcome - not good for morale, for a start. But for Sean McAllister, whose shooting is done with a camera, it was the basis for "Minders" an odd and interesting Modern Times (BBC2).

McAllister had gone to Iraq on the previous occasion when negotiation looked like turning into armed conflict (the BBC swears that the scheduling of the programme was fortuitous). Hanging around with the rest of the press pack, waiting for something to happen, McAllister amused himself by filming his Baghdad Ministry of Information minders - Alla, a plump, middle-aged smoothie apparatchik with a passion for pop music, and Kifah, younger, anxious about his job prospects, with a bizarrely detailed knowledge of superannuated British footballers.

While conscientiously filming a local movie star handing out toy missile- launchers to the inmates of a Baghdad orphanage, and recording macabre Anti-American demonstrations in which distraught bereaved parents paraded the coffins or their infant dead, McAllister suddenly found a new angle. In the absence of a conflict, he was granted permission to film his minders.

"I hope you are going to tell the truth," said Kifah. It all depends, I suppose, what you mean by the truth. McAllister's film, in its insistence on the detail and resolute lack of interest in abstract issues, rather resembled a newspaper photograph so enormously enlarged that the original image can no longer be discerned. Why was he granted permission to film people whose job it was to prevent him from filming the truth? Why, shortly after filming began, did Kifah lose his job? And why did his brother, imprisoned for years, suddenly find himself starring in McAllister's film of his liberation party? McAllister grandly declined to say. Instead, he followed his quarry about with a hand-held camera, filming them rather as though they were some rare and elusive species of wild animal, recording their habitat as though the truth would be found there.

This raw approach had its longueurs - Alla's holiday snaps were, frankly, no more interesting than anyone else's, and McAllister's insistent questioning about his sex life failed to dislodge the affable opacity of his professional persona. Kifah, perhaps because he thought he had more to gain from being filmed, or perhaps because he was the more interesting and complex personality, exposed himself to the camera with affecting candour and eloquent phraseology and gestures. "Sometimes," he said of his sacking, "I believe it is a test from God, to see if I am a bad man or a good man. Some of my friends have lost their honour, but I haven't. Life is very beautiful, but we complicate it."

McAllister's response to all this was hard to read. He appeared quite brusquely to repudiate Kifah's offers of hospitality and friendship. "If I came to London, would you welcome me?" asked Kifah. "I'd buy you a pint," muttered McAllister, ungraciously. But then the film, very beautiful in its jerky, underlit fashion, seemed animated by a curiosity and a fascination with detail - Alla's passion for gaudy ice creams; Kifah's Penguin edition of Mansfield Park -- that looked quite like affection.

Back to the Floor (BBC2) went out just before "Minders", and made McAllister's gauche detachment look like a virtue. Tony Pidgley, adopted at four and raise in poverty by "gypsies" is now managing director of developers Berkeley Homes, but left the boardroom and the Bentley for a week to work on his own site at "Harrods Village", a pounds 300 million development. It was an exercise rich in comic potential - complaining clients, semi-clad yahoos operating jackhammers in defiance of workplace safety guidelines, stuccoed pillars bleeding rusty tears like gory Catholic icons, and, in the middle of it all, Tony, a most engaging and energetic personality, aghast at what he was seeing.

In imaginative hands, this might have made captivating television. But ugly lighting, slack editing and a lazy lack of curiosity about the people involved added up to a film that a developer might have made - bland, inoffensive, and magnolia to its heart.

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