Last year Louis Theroux made two documentaries set in the UK. The majority of Theroux’s docs have been set in US and seeing him chatting to people in his native land was a bit of revelation. Theroux’s gift is being able to relate and connect with anyone he meets, but in these UK based programmes his connection with the people he met seemed on a different level.
After his three-part series Dark States which explored the dark underbelly of Trump’s America, this new documentary, Talking to Anorexia sees Theroux back on home turf and it’s all the better for it.
The first scene throws us into the deep end with what Louis describes as “psycho drama” and the idea of the irrationality of anorexia as an illness. This isn’t the kind of show that would end up on a Louis Theroux meme page on various social media, there is a cutting darkness that seems to be developing as his work continues, however the show does promise to impress avid Theroux fans, as the programme brings a suitable insight into those who attend St Ann’s Hospital’s Phoenix Wing and Vincent Square in London, where patients under eating disorder treatment are monitored in a strict, routined, supervised lifestyle tailored towards recovery.
The documentary focuses on many sufferers, from a dental assistant, Rosie, who had been suffering from the illness (with near deadly consequences) for less than a year and described not eating as a “thrill”, to job centre worker Janet, a 63 year old who has been battling the disorder for over 40 years.
However Theroux also speaks to sufferers who are live on Phoenix ward for a minimum nine months and often longer. One patient describes the hospital as a “prison”while another does an average of two thousand star jumps a day to help the time pass. Many patients are kept against their will, and sometimes sectioned.
The documentary also demonstrates how the families of those with the condition are victims of it as well. Louis forms a relationship with Rosie’s parents, whom Rosie accuses of being unsupportive and admits to making them “scared” during the anger and anguish that came with her eating disorder.
Rosie’s dad admits to being unable to cope any longer. His breaking point came when he found himself carrying his daughter upstairs after the disease robbed her of her ability to move.
Another focus is Ifzana who accuses doctors of being “dramatic” when they discuss how she nearly died from her pathological fear of eating, and becomes defensive when Louis tried to make her sit down, which will burn less calories than standing. Ifzana’s appeal to have time outside the ward was met with sufficient concern with doctors suggesting she went outside in a wheelchair due to her low blood pressure and need to keep active.
The documentary addresses the possible reasons for the mental illness, discussing why it has the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue in the country, and how it extends past physical ideas of vanity or perfectionism. Theroux asks for individuals to give their personal insight into what made them so poorly, whether it be a sense of unworthiness, a need for attention, a lack of coping mechanisms, the media, bullying or any other cultural or personal difficulties of a person’s life. He explores the reason for its increase among both genders, and all walks of life, interviewing a Jew and a Muslim on how their culture’s pressures led to a poor coping mechanism. Theroux says “I’m really sorry it’s been such a struggle.” To one patient, as she cries after being readmitted, and credits the “daily heroism” faced by sufferers.
Although, throughout his heart-wrenching story, Theroux’s typical producing prowess still provides us with cinematically brightly coloured shots, showing handwritten mantras that hang on the wall of the hospital wing along with several social media photos of the patients before their illness, often looking happy and, as one patient describes, “beautiful”. Louis even winks at someone who makes him a drink; laughs with Janet; and is shown having a certain friendship and personal relationship with many of the doctors and patients he converses with, hugging Rosie after not seeing her for a while and leaving the room when she feels uncomfortable.
In any way, this contemporary, unique and sometimes uncomfortable documentary creates a juxtaposition of helplessness and hope, in typical Theroux fashion. Once again, himself and his crew have managed to inform and capture an audience in a devastating look into a world that most are ignorant to.