Last night's viewing - Escape from the World's Most Dangerous Place, BBC3
The 70s, BBC2
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013, and is currently a judge of the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and the Independent Scholastic New Children's Prize 2014.
Tuesday 01 May 2012
Escape from the World's Most Dangerous Place! The title might have made the viewer buckle in for an action-adventure B-movie featuring a snake-pit and a woman dangling above it.
The first few minutes of this documentary weren't the best portends either, but, after that, everything transformed into utterly compelling viewing. Samira Hashi was shown preparing for a three-week trip back to Somalia, the country that she had left at the age of three to escape the blistering poverty of a refugee camp. A gamine 21-year-old model, Samira sounded like she was packing for a party, not for a trip to a war-torn country. "I love modelling," she said, and tried to squeeze her suitcase shut. "Rock on. Frock'n'roll..."
Scarlett Johansson's narration didn't help with this initial dissonance either. It's as if BBC3 bods were trying to temper grit with glamour to appeal to its target "yoof" audience. But the tone settled into a moving and authentic personal story after this hiccuping start. There was a brief exploration of her multicultural identity in Britain before she left for Africa, which consisted of barbed exchanges with her mother. The latter was as sharp as her daughter – "You're too skinny," she said. "You look like a broom." Samira held up her end against her devout Muslim mother's disapproval of modelling, saying: "I could be taking drugs, I could be a prostitute, or I could be modelling Vivienne Westwood."
Yet it was clear she held her mother in very high regard. Though this was Samira's journey, she constantly referred to her mother's courage in her migration from Somalia to Britain 18 years ago, with five daughters in tow and no sign of her husband who had since set up a home in Ethiopia (complete with new wife and three sons). Samira turned out to be a natural, feisty and charming presence in front of the camera. She grimaced at her father when he admitted he had partly left her mother because she had failed to give birth to boys. She showed the same open contempt for the "cutters" who conducted the female genital mutilation on pre-pubescent girls.
Her response to the poverty and pain of the refugee camps along the Somalia-Ethiopia border reflected the disbelief of an ordinary British teenager unused to such searing developing-world hardship. She seemed deeply affected by the suffering children she came across in the camps. This could have been me, she said. She cried often. The women whose horrifying stories she heard ended up comforting her: "Be quiet, my sister." Their stoicism was testimony to how much emotional hardiness they had needed in order to survive, while Samira's unrestrained responses seemed to give visceral expression to their trauma and tragedy. As we learned more about Samira's past, the storytelling opened to tell tale of a troubled nation, but never lost track of Samira's personal struggle for identity.
Dominic Sandbook continued his own travels through The 70s, and while the penultimate instalment of his four-part series turned up a perfectly adequate history of 1975 to 1977 (beginning with the women's movement and the Sex Discrimination Act), there seemed to be too much familiar material and not enough revelation. Perhaps this was only the case for those of us who lived through these years.
Amid the archive footage of Bernard Manning and football hooligans, the Leyland car factory and the Sex Pistols (whose music was regarded by some as a threat to the British way of life), there was a startlingly shameful moment in which "Parky" introduced Helen Mirren as an actress who projects a "sluttish eroticism". He then asked her whether "as a serious actress, you find what could be described as your 'equipment' perhaps hinders you in that pursuit?" These words were said as he leered south of her neckline, presumably at her "equipment".
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