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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence