White mischief


Just when everyone else has jumped off the flagging bandwagon he helped design, Paul Watson this week abandoned the fly-on-the-wall documentary and went back to interviewing people. The result, White Lives (Channel 4, Sunday and Monday, 9pm), was one of the most accomplished documentaries of the year - but it begged at least as many questions about his methods as Sylvania Waters and The Dinner Party. Watson is, we are aware by now, a stitch-up artist. It is to his credit that he is one who at least leaves enough thread-ends visible to let us know how he operates.

Initially announcing itself as White Lies, White Lives made it clear from the off that we were not meant to like the paler African tribes. Understandably paranoid about their future, but still unreconciled to their past - one suggested the whites should have fought and lost a civil war, just to clear the air - the Afrikaners were dreaming of something a little more permanent than just a white Christmas. "While there's a black left on this earth, you will have corruption, you will have murder, you will have theft and you will have sin," explained one charmer selected to begin the first of two 70-minute episodes.

But you could feel Watson had even less time for the Mathee family, who fancied themselves as progressive traditionalists. "We had the apartheid era - oh, my dear, that was so long ago," said Dolla Mathee as her black maid Hoovered between the giraffe and the zebra sticking from her wall. The dead fauna carried as much symbolic weight as the vacuum cleaner. These days there is no greater moral litmus test than people's attitude to animals. When Dolla's husband explained he killed all but the fastest of his obsessively bred homing pigeons, it was very apparent this was a test the Mathees had failed.

A rare example of a good white was Debora Patta, a radio journalist who had taken it upon herself to investigate Pretoria's involvement in the air crash that killed Samora Machel, Mozambique's Marxist president, a few years ago. When the evasive former foreign secretary, Pik Botha, was finally tracked down, he elected to appear not with her but on a chummier John Dunne-style interview programme on her station. More interested in getting him to read out a commercial, his interrogator finally got round to asking about Mozambique. "I would just recommend that people who say President Mandela was poisoned . . ." Botha began confidently, before being reminded that it was President Machel whom he was accused of bumping off.

The satirist Pieter Dirk Uys took the view that the white supremacists were too drunkenly amateur to attempt a counter-revolution, but the programme implicitly sided with Eugene Terre Blanche's hornier versions of one Last Battle. Images of guns were stuccoed throughout, forming a bloody pattern that was slightly less alarming when you looked at it frame by frame. To cite a for-instance: a couple of overtly racist cops were filmed talking in their car. The camera turned to show a black woman and her child cross the street in front of them. Suddenly one of the sergeants leapt out of the car and began shooting - or so it seemed. In fact, we had jump-cut to a police firing range. Later on, scenes from this were elided with footage of Afrikaner nationalists taking shooting practice. The image that followed was of a bleeding puncture hole surrounded by black skin.

Watson's technique of sarcastic juxtaposition reached its climax in the last 20 minutes of Monday's film. At least he had the good grace (or legal sense) to preface it with a health warning: "The hijack gang in the following sequence has not been accused of the crimes described by Mrs Sharpe."

Maeread Sharpe, a white "yuppie", recounted how she had been attacked by a black gang intent on taking not only her car but her life. As she described, one by one, her assailants, the faces of three black youths whom until now had been silent punctuation between Watson's white talking heads, appeared. Then the most beautiful of the boys spoke: he preferred to kill for a living than work for a white. Yet his gun had been supplied by the police; they used him as a contract killer. And his other bosses? Well, Mrs Sharpe's attackers, she told us, turned out to have been working for a white Mozambican. This irony was not only a subliminal reference back to the allegations of cross-border co- operation in Machel's killing, but a kind of "proof" that South African violence was always inspired by whites - a proof underscored by clips from a boxing match between a white and a black (for, although the black won, we saw he was working for white managers).

Watson says he hopes people go to bed arguing about his documentaries. I certainly hope they do. Although technically brilliant, White Lives was nearer a work of art than a documentary. I am sure Watson feels his impressionism - otherwise known as playing fast and loose with one's material - painted a broader truth than a conventional documentary could. Since it is Christmas, I have decided to trust him on this.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition