Sunday, March 9
Reviews: Unreported World: The Drowning Country, and New Heroes of Comedy
The story of a sinking nation is guaranteed longevity as surely as the comedy brilliance of Sacha Baron Cohen, says Mark Lewis
Bangladesh is sinking. Unreported World: The Drowning Country (Friday, Channel 4, 7.35pm) could have asked why. Rather it asked who. The device is effective: Its grieving mothers, desperate fathers, and dying children make us question the profligacy of our own lives much more surely than a whole series of programmes on the evils of Chelsea tractors.
Ramita Navai (check out an interview with her on the televisionreview podcast) submerges herself in the story as surely as Bangladesh’s coastal regions are being submerged by the tides. She rejects the fuck-you indifference of the jaded foreign correspondent, lending her own compassion to the battered humanity of her subjects.
The result is a beautifully shot, chaotically moving tale of terrible loss, with a sense that the Unreported World team is experiencing some of the same chaos as its subjects. It is two weeks since the latest typhoon; the floods - which used to come every 20 years but now arrive every five - have claimed yet more Bangladeshi homes; and Navai (who reveals her concern in the televisionreview podcast) does not let us off the emotional hook.
She is guided through the filthy mud by friendly hands, breathlessly showing us where the homes of her guides used to be. She apologises to a man whose wife and son are buried on a mass grave. She reaches out to bereaved women and children with an encouraging, friendly hand on quivering arms and legs. She excels in encouraging the sad narrative from everyone she meets, but is equally adept at sharing the joy of a school child too young to know any better. Navai is allowed to be flawed, moved and human. The result is a film which stays with our guilty conscience far longer than those with more obviously accusatory fingers.
Sacha Baron Cohen has already achieved longevity. As the creator of Ali G and Borat, his place amongst comedy immortality is assured, and he is rightly the subject of Channel 4’s final New Heroes of Comedy (Friday, 9pm).
The great power of his characters was their ability to tease the pomposity out of the British political and upper classes who were only too quick to patronise the youth culture of Ali G and the foreignness of Borat. When he became one of the most recognised faces in Britain, he was able to tap into the race consciousness of the United States. The raucousness of the audience at his rendition of ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’ (So My Country Can be free) was one of the most shockingly hilarious jokes of the naughties.
But ultimately it was the ignorance of his subjects which gave this brilliant, brave man the canvas upon which to daub his consummate comedy. There is no criticism here. As surely as Aristotle was the heir to Plato and Socrates, Baron Cohen is the heir to Chris Morris and Peter Cook. Their line of ancestry lies in their braveness and ability to deliver funny satire.
You will be hard pressed to find a braver or funnier gag than singing the ‘Kazakhstan national anthem’, with its line about all other nations being homosexuals, to the tune of the stars and stripes at a rodeo full of hicks. But he has been co-opted so thoroughly by popular culture that you fear he will never be funny again. We cannot blame Baron Cohen for appearing in Hollywood comedies, but we must hope that his familiarity does not quell forever his power to entertain.
Comedy prostitutes have been waiting for years for Chris Morris to disappear for long enough to come back and fuck us all over again. For the good of comedy, Sacha Baron Cohen needs to fuck off for a few years too.