Louis Theroux’s two very different documentaries under the topic ‘Extreme Love’ on families caring for children with autism and adults suffering from dementia were really rewarding watches.
The autism programme was based in New Jersey and followed a number of children who attended the Development Learning Center in Warren. This large school seemed to have lots of resources although it was unclear where the funding came from (they probably mentioned it but I’ve forgotten now). It was a great programme because Theroux interacted with a number of children on the autistic spectrum from the verbal to the non-verbal, the violent and the non-violent. But the focus was as much on the parents, particularly the mothers (most of the fathers seemed absent/less involved), as it was on the children themselves.
I was impressed with the honesty of the participants. One mother was particularly candid – she had twins with autism (a boy and a girl) – and she told Theroux that she didn’t understand why she had had to have children with autism. She was a good caring person, she said, she didn’t need the life lessons that other parents perhaps needed. ‘God’ came up a lot in Theroux’s discussions with all the parents on the show. Another had had to put her son in a home after he used to hit her, tear her hair out and burnt their house down, but she still loved her son and looked after him on weekends. And the star of the show was Nicky, a guy who was graduating from the Center in Warren to another school. He had once been unable to communicate verbally but now, not only was he highly verbal, but he had written out his own dictionaries, including those of Japanese and Hindi to English and his own fantasy novel. And, turned the tables slightly on Theroux, when he read out Theroux’s wikipedia entry to him.
This was the kind of documentary that people need to see – to be aware of the world and society and people that live around them. I’m pleased to see that it was the most watched programme that Thursday night at 9pm so hopefully it has broadened some people’s minds.
The dementia episode was perhaps more distressing than the autism one, because it is a disease that anyone is more likely to experience. Here, Theroux was based in Phoenix, Arizona, because of its large retirement community. Participants included a 69 year old former dentist who no longer remembered that his wife was his wife, and so was having relationships with other residents, reminding me of the film Away from Her. Theroux also visited an 89 year old woman who was looked after by her 88 year old husband, who always has to wear a name badge so she can remember him. And, Theroux, also talked to a 49 year old woman with a 9 year old daughter, who couldn’t work out how to use her mobile phone anymore or draw a clock and was told that she probably wouldn’t remember her daughter in two years time. It was a real insight into Alzheimers as it’s not merely about forgetting things, but also a difficulty to perform everyday tasks. Although they want and know what they want to communicate/do at some level, there’s something in their brain stopping them from processing the information properly to act these actions out.
In both programmes, Theroux was a very sympathetic observer. He was involved in looking after some of the children, playing with them, helping out when they had tantrums or using his iphone to distract them. He ate with and looked after some of the adults as well, showing them affection and giving them company. He has explained that he enjoyed filming these documentaries where he wasn’t focusing on the weird anymore, and they definitely suited him and his style. As with any good programme, you don’t want them to end and you want to see more, but this is not reality tv either and Theroux was informative without being intrusive. Bravo.