The Weekend's TV: The Life and Loss of Karen Woo, Sun, ITV1
Louis Theroux: Miami Mega-Jail, Sun, BBC2

Memories that cannot be erased

Technology has done some strange things to grief.

As anyone who's ever had the experience of hearing the voice of a dead loved one on an answering machine will know, it can blur the boundary between presence and absence in a most piercing way. And video can be even more difficult, since being filmed brings out a self-conscious vitality in most of us. It can seem inconceivable that that person, looking directly at you, grinning, is alive on screen and nowhere else. The Life and Loss of Karen Woo, Ursula Macfarlane's very touching film about the killing of a British aid worker, exploited that blurring with great skill. It began with a slightly enigmatic image – a young woman sitting with a pensive, even faintly melancholy expression, which broke at the end into a lovely smile. On the soundtrack you could hear her voice, talking of love and her hopes for the future: "I'd like to be married and have kids and hopefully that will happen," she said. And then you learned that just two weeks before her wedding day, she and her colleagues had been murdered while travelling in a remote area of Afghanistan.

Karen's story was told by the man who was going to marry her, a former British soldier called Paddy Smith who met and fell in love with her in Kabul, where he was working as a security adviser. For this film he'd revisited some of the places where she'd worked, and footage Karen herself had filmed for a planned documentary about her work in Afghanistan effectively allowed Macfarlane to show us what he might be seeing in his mind's eye. The overlaps were often uncanny – locations and local faces unchanged but just one person missing, the person Smith most wanted to see. When he visited a local children's home the image cut between Karen on the playground roundabout, laughing with one of the children, to Smith staring desolately at the same piece of equipment, slowly turning with no one on it.

Such contrasts would have been moving enough whatever she'd been like, but the video footage meant that we didn't have to rely only on the memories of those who loved her to get a sense of her character. You'd expect them to praise her as unique and irreplaceable. But it was less predictable to find that her personality worked on you directly, partly because of her charismatic smile, but also because of a life shaped by a remarkable lack of fear. Woo left home and school at 16 to become a dancer, and the choreographer Richard Alston testified to the fact that she'd been good enough to shine as a performer. But having brought off that large gamble, Woo took another one, going back into education to train as a doctor. And when she'd successfully achieved that, she threw the dice again, giving up a good job in Britain to pursue what for her was far more meaningful work in Afghanistan.

She addressed the risks she was taking with a poignant simplicity. "We plan for the worst and hope for the best," she said, before setting off for a remote area of Afghanistan on a medical mission. Most touching of all, there was footage of her end of one of the last calls she'd made to Smith, telling him that she missed him: "We'll have to go and do lots of camping in the wilderness together," she said. "I love you... don't worry." When she failed to text him a day or two later, he knew that something had gone terribly wrong. MacFarlane left the last words to Woo herself, cutting between her smiling vivacity and Smith, driving at night in Kabul: "Anyone who you see contend with unimaginable adversity, hope is probably what sustained them," she had said, "so what is the point of living without it? Hope is enormously powerful."

There wasn't a lot of hope around in Louis Theroux: Miami Mega-Jail, in which Louis visited a hellish remand centre in Florida: "One of the most violent in the Miami jail system." What he discovered was a system in which violence had been institutionalised, with guards tacitly accepting that any new arrival in one of the big shared cells would either have to deal out a beating or take one. "Ain't no telling what's going to happen once we close that door," said a warder, who was about to lock up a palpably terrified boy in glasses, in on a charge of attempted murder. In fact, there was plenty of telling, mostly by men who seemed to feel they had nothing to lose by a chuckling discussion of their own vicious brutality. "GABOS," explained one terrifying cell kingpin flatly, "... game ain't based on sympathy." Another interviewee – no pushover when it came to fighting his corner – turned up with fresh injuries every time he appeared.

Having made documentaries in US jails before, Theroux can't have been quite as surprised as he made out about the brutality of this one, though I think his shock at "gunning" – public masturbation intended to intimidate and humiliate the guards – was absolutely genuine (particularly when he suddenly became aware that he was being "gunned" himself). What left me baffled was how – in a country as litigious as the United States – no inmate has yet successfully sued the Miami-Dade Corrections Department for the absolutely flagrant breach of their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the administration of "cruel and unusual punishment". Perhaps the state's lawyers simply argued that while it might be cruel, there was nothing unusual about it at all.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea