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
Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable