TELEVISION / The clear face of race-hate

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The Independent Culture
TELEVISION documentaries are often best experienced with your eyes closed, without the dinky graphics, the Vaseline blobs over speakers' faces, or the library images dragged out to illustrate abstract concepts. But The Truth Lies in Rostock (C4), a documentary about the German riots last year in which a Vietnamese hostel was firebombed, almost suffered from an excess of perfect and comprehensible footage. Nothing was left to the imagination, and the truth hurt.

Over four days of rioting, video cameras swept the scene time and time again: in the crowd, in the hostel, from the rooftops. The murderous racists gathered, first on a picnic-bright day and then lit only by blazing cars; the handful of police made mock skirmishes against them and suddenly disappeared at the height of the action; the building darkened, and then flamed into life as boys with bombs swung from floor to floor. Everything was exquisitely documented, perfectly framed.

But what appears unquestionable can be used any which way. Exploited - as when the German authorities described footage of the brutal action taken by police against anti-racist counter-demonstrators as depicting the arrests of racists. Or just ignored. 'We have not been able to arrest those who threw Molotov cocktails,' chattered the then-Chief of Police, as the camera cut between his slick round face and crystal clear, full-face footage of young German boys throwing stones, glass and blazing bombs, 'due to lack of evidence.'

They remember how to do things here. Refugees in Rostock are left outside vetting centres to sleep rough, without food or sanitation, for weeks on end, before they're even seen by the authorities. They may get a little dirty, even a little sick, a circular effect of dehumanisation. 'They're not people, they're shit,' blared the rioters. Mima, an open-faced Yugoslavian refugee, was probably overstating the case when she said, 'I always wondered what it was like to live in a concentration camp.' But one German passer- by was ashamed: 'I was a refugee in 1945. I was given food and help.' Oh, the good old 1940s.

It's still seen as some kind of excuse to explain that East Germans are poor. Over a shot of a gleaming Mercedes drawing into a depressed area, one person commented, 'We thought consumer business would pick up. We put money into cars.' The sun glinted off the Mercedes star, as if off a symbol of purity and hope.

Another documentary earlier in the week, The Star and the Shadow (C4), gave us a lowdown on that symbol. It dug into a quieter story, the recent relocation of a Mercedes-Benz factory in Ludwigsfelde, an East German town that knew its presence during the war. Some of the old workers were brought before the camera: 'At that time, at the age of 16 in Ludwigsfelde, I desperately wanted to die.' 'Men would come from the factory and make selections. We would strip naked and run in front of them.' 'They conducted experiments to see how little we could eat, how much we could work. At 29 kilos I was the heaviest of all of us.'

The shining star exploited the slave labour from nearby concentration camps, and never paid a penny of direct compensation to the ailing, elderly women who now told their stories slowly and passionately to a static camera. With no visual gimmicks, and almost no commentary at all, the documentary pulled you on and on into the evening. Unfortunately, despite its access to survivors, the film-makers had failed to question directors of Mercedes-Benz about their record. Only some ironic footage of share-holders' meetings was included: 'We will never stint on anything that is necessary for Daimler-Benz's competitiveness.'

Race problems in Britain may not need such intense journeys of discovery, but they probably deserve more rigorous coverage than that seen this week. Birthrights: The Colour of Love (BBC2) was a well-meaning discussion of the experiences of children of mixed-race relationships. The odd testimony bore the burden of despair, but most of it was strikingly buoyant. On the best side, the more cultures, the bigger the kitchen - one Jewish-black-white family had the usual nine courses for Passover, and turkey and roast potatoes and sprouts and salt fish and akee and yams and plantains for Christmas.

The divisiveness of British race relations was more sharply exposed in a debate about trans-racial adoption with Linda Bellos, Harry Zeitlin and a frighteningly electric studio audience (Nation, BBC2). The problem isn't black and white, we learnt, as people argued angrily for only placing Jew with Jew, Muslim with Muslim, Hindu with Hindu, and even Irish with Irish, since 'the Irish are a race apart. If an Irish family isn't available, a black family is preferable to English whites because at least they understand what it's like, coming from a despised race.'

From slices of life to slices of cake: A for Abba (BBC1) was the week's juiciest highlight, a huge portion of blissful self-indulgence. I may only have been seven years old when Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest, but I too had a Proustian rush over Agnetha's blue sequinned cap and painfully tight, calf-length flares. Most of the contributors, from Tim Rice to Elvis Costello, paid glowing tribute to a band whose glorious success was - how can we put it? - all about 'not being afraid to use rinky-dink tunes', 'not being able to speak English properly', being really kitsch, being really tragic, writing 'big, sweeping songs', writing 'muzak'. Only poor Lowri Turner, the Evening Standard's fashion editor, didn't realise that it's OK to let your flared and sequinned inner-self out of the closet. Through the tight smile and in the beige cardigan of the stylistically repressed, she muttered, 'They had to pay for it. They had to wear the clothes.'

The surprise of the programme was seeing Benny and Bjorn again. Oddly, they didn't look anything like musical has-beens, but like their old selves before Abba, when they had starring roles in those legendary groups, Bodacious and the Hep-Stars. Arms folded and softly spoken, they looked back in amusement: 'It's rather fantastic that they didn't kill us for being so corny, at the time.'

Allison Pearson returns next week.

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