TV UK, 9 January

Ou Dede and his Daughters: reality TV has inherited the ethical dilemmas of anthropology, and vice versa.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

Channel 4’s Chinese season came good on Sunday night with Ou Dede and his Daughters, a documentary by Wang Qinze, set among the dramatically misnamed Nu tribe of southern China. In fact the tribe is incredibly primitive, or charmingly rustic, depending on your point of view.

Ou Dede was the village musician and repository of the Nu’s culture. Traditionally the songs and dances were passed from father to son, but Ou Dede had only daughters, three of them. This was a problem. The village headman had just returned from the local government meeting, where it had been decided that the preservation of traditional Chinese cultures should be a priority, and so Ou Dede would have to pass on his knowledge to one of his daughters, or to another boy from the village. This demand to break with tradition in order to preserve tradition threw Ou Dede into an almighty existential crisis.

The ensuing crying, shouting, singing and drinking meant that this anthropological documentary began to resemble reality TV. When Ou Dede finally decided to teach one of his daughters, he inexplicably chose Third Daughter, who wanted to stay at school, instead of Second Daughter, who had her heart set on the job. (They really didn’t seem to have names.) Second Daughter went ballistic. While this was entertaining, I couldn’t help reflecting that reality TV has inherited the ethical dilemmas of anthropology. These people don’t have electricity, never mind a TV. Is it fair to expose their private angst to a Western audience?

Putting such concerns aside, the highlight was a scene in which Ou Dede sat alone in a field drinking and singing to his dead father, demanding some kind of intervention. This was the sort of thing reality TV producers dream about. Ou Dede completely unravelled; tears and snotters dribbled down his face as he questioned every part of his existence, asking at one point, ‘What is culture?’. It’s a very good question.

As is customary in these parts, we shall now return to the police drama, specifically Messiah 2, which is on this weekend (BBC1). The two-part drama was originally supposed to be shown last summer, but it was postponed because of the high-profile murder of the two girls in Cambridgeshire. There are seven murders by my count in Messiah 2, and a lot more grizzly action besides. I’m not particularly keen on serial killer stories: they are somehow unrealistic even when they are true, but this is at least nicely done. The first Messiah was about a killer who based his murders on the apostles. This one is similarly clever, with a neat plot that recalls the movie Se7en.

But Messiah 2 also deals with an interesting moral problem, asking how flawed the police are allowed to be. We’re not talking about corruption, malice or politically motivated set-ups, but little more than corner-cutting. We all know how much detectives (at least TV detectives) rely on hunches. But sometimes a hunch can become a rut, and the detective can lose perspective. At best, he loses sight of other possibilities, and at worst he actively fiddles the evidence to make it fit. It’s a frightening thought, but Messiah 2 encourages us to see both sides of the issue.

And the killer is….

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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