TELEVISION REVIEW / Where pictures fail to tell the full story

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The Independent Culture
'I DON'T understand this war - I missed the beginning,' complained a woman in 'Mutter of Voices', Michele Roberts' contribution to Another Country . . . Rwandan Stories (BBC 2). It was the best line in an otherwise exasperating exercise in hand-wringing, a line that acknowledged our irrepressible appetite for narrative. But Roberts was more interested in the helpless passivity of viewers, delivering a series of banal scenes in which people pottered about their daily lives while the television broadcast its horrors in the background. It didn't help that this thought was a thudding commonplace, but to use television to communicate it seemed positively quixotic - as if one was to issue a pamphlet about the inadequacies of pamphleteering.

It served, at least, as a suitable question mark for the entire enterprise. What could these five short films hope to achieve that hours of current affairs coverage hadn't? It's true that we need a reminder, if nothing else, but in the self- conscious creativity of the films - their attempt to find new languages to use - the makers clearly wanted to make you think again in another sense too. It worked in two out of the five films, a pretty good strike rate for an experiment, and there were virtues even in the failures. Ben Okri's poem had little going for it but the obvious sincerity of its wishful thinking, but the visual accompaniment, a high-minded version of those photographic tableaux you find on airport thrillers, was effective, while Mark Boyle's slide lecture on the planning of the massacres impressed by the clarity of its method.

But only David Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar did much to change your mind. Dabydeen did it by exploring the Hutu's tuition in genocide by European colonists, working on the vocabulary so that the casual Western slur of 'primitive' was redeemed, seen as a possible route to civilization rather than it's negation.

Fred D'Aguiar's film (to be shown this Saturday) takes hold of a machete's handle and imagines what it might feel like to wield it. His lines are striking, and never more so than when they are about striking a blow: 'The cutlass that comes to rest is the cutlass stuck in bone'. He writes too of a child in 'the careless arms of its dead mother', vividly true of physical appearance but poignantly aware of what has gone, and his account of the simple labour of killing, of young men waking with aching muscles, is both frightening and persuasive. They hack a path away from pity. D'Aguiar's words are sustained by elliptical images which linger, a long line of machetes slowly swinging, rain on the pavement, a boy with a plate of stones. It was a film in which imagination dared to cross a border - bringing the killers back to life.

An audacious claim on your sympathy in Inside Story (BBC 1) too, which looked at the plight of ruined Lloyd's Names. It isn't easy to weep when the hard-luck story is pitched from a Sussex vineyard or a gentleman's club but this fascinating account of the serene gullibility of privilege tempered your indifference a little. A selection of people who had no need of a free lunch found out the hard way that there is no such thing - that old boys could be bad boys too. The thought occurred more than once that they were exactly the type who bang on about social security scroungers but it would be a mean spirit that took satisfaction from these wrecked lives. It was the ones who didn't complain that got to you most - like the splendid Margot Deal, reduced to living in a caravan but concerned about nothing but easing her husband's guilt. You felt like organising a whip- round, until you realised she'd only have to hand it over to the people who put her there in the first place.

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