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20 February 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Comic Relief goes to 'Hell'
What is Nigel of EastEnders fame doing in Rwanda with Comic Relief?

by Adam Hibbert

It is frustrating to grapple with such a slippery journalistic category as a 'documentary in support of a charity'. Are we to rate it by its objectivity, at one extreme, or by the donations achieved, at the other?

In Rwanda: Hope in Hell, the Comic Relief trailer programme broadcast on 21 February, the BBC opts not to resolve this tension, but to offer us both ends and trust to luck. Fergal Keane, the respected foreign correspondent who bore witness to the slaughter in 1994, provides the authority and journalistic credentials. Paul Bradley, best known for his role as Nigel in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, represents the cosseted, sentimental, under-informed average Joe. It is a return gig for Nigel, after his bumbling and almost penitent trip to meet the Rwandan self-help group Widows of the Genocide in 1999.

But the trick falls apart with the first, sonorous phrase Bradley, as narrator, offers us: 'In the heart of the African continent.' Before we have seen anything more than a map, the viewer understands that this is not to be a simple tour of the projects his cash will finance, but a Conradian trip into (in Keane's words) 'a land where Hell has been', suffused with 'the stench of evil'.

The programme notes that the BBC offers to reviewers reinforce this suggestion, adding an extraordinary new element to the genocide tale: 'What has since come to light is that during the genocide, the HIV virus was spread in a deliberate campaign of mass rapes.' The viewers are promised not one, but three unimaginable horrors to palpitate their purses. When it comes down to it, not even the (Rwandan Patriotic Front) minister for health can be coaxed into confirming this 'deliberate campaign'. But this doesn't blunt the message: 'The horror! The horror!'

What might have been an informative film descends rapidly into ghoulishness and voyeurism. From one member of the Widows of the Genocide to the next, a ritual is established. The woman is invited to recount her tale of grotesque abuse, via an interpreter, preferably to shed a tear, and then to smile with the pudgy white men about some hopeful element to be found in their current, Comic Relief-supported circumstances.

Nigel and Fergal look on with a variety of pained and reverential expressions - at one point actually sitting in pews while a survivor reads to the congregation from the Bible. The relationship is clear, as Nigel sees it: these people are a spiritual beacon for us, signifying hope, generosity, bravery. While he cannot imagine how he would carry on in these circumstances, these women 'just do'. The unstated moral, of course, being that Nige - and by extension, the viewers - are lowly, weak and ungrateful creatures.

Nigel and Fergal sit in pews while a survivor reads from the bible
There is something uncomfortable in the process of agitating the viewer with some of the obscene sights offered. The heaps of skulls, reminiscent of Cambodia, might have made quite an eloquent statement about the horror that the women have survived. But Keane points out that this slaughter, often by machete, was 'killing of a very intimate kind', and invites us to 'try and visualise the amount of brutality' required.

None of these niggles would count for very much if the programme made no pretence of a political position, and just concentrated on the philanthropy. It is exploitative and emotive, and what charity's adverts wouldn't be in the circumstances? It may gloss over the grey areas, such as the Hutu moderates slaughtered by their 'tribal' allies, or the reports that the spread of HIV post-war is fuelled by widespread prostitution. Of course it would be madness to muddy the waters with such matters when the fundraising imperative is so evident. But the programme can't quite resist the politics, either.

Standing outside a tent full of dismembered skeletons awaiting burial, Keane instructs our Nige that the emotion he feels inside the tent is one of anger; anger at the foolish politicians and commentators at home who still insist that 'you have no business getting involved in other people's countries'. Gesturing at the gruesome remains, he says: 'Just as long as they know the consequences; that's what it [non-intervention] ends up in.'

When the men in white helmets leave Africa, a 'stench of evil' rapidly fills the void. It is a bizarre interpretation of events - and not exactly funny.

Read on:

Comic Relief: a bad taste lingers by Ann Furedi

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