Louis Theroux – why he likes America’s most hated

The documentary-maker explains why homophobes, murderers and paedophiles are his favourite subjects

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As a maker of access-based documentaries about dark and disturbing areas of life, I’m sometimes asked: “How can you stand to spend all that time with people like that? How do you not lose your temper?” I usually hem and haw and feel awkward and wonder if there might be something slightly wrong with me.

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It is true that I have spent quite a bit of time with neo-Nazis and murderers, drug addicts and predatory paedophiles. But I don’t view my job as unpleasant. I actually find it fascinating speaking to people who are accused of doing dreadful things or have highly questionable views.

Whatever the crimes they might be guilty of, or strange beliefs they might hold, I’ve usually been able to connect with their human feeling and emotions underneath and ended up in some measure liking them.

Often these people are American. I’m frequently asked what it is about America that keeps me coming back. I think it is a combination of the size of the place, its prosperity, the shared language, the culture of openness and the unselfconsciousness of the people and their ease with cameras.

Taken all together, along with the vast commercial culture in which everything is packaged and the large mixture of religious beliefs, it has to be said America is a very weird place indeed.

Most recently I caught up with members of the virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (for BBC2 documentary America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis). Known for their bizarre habit of turning up at high-profile funerals [likely to attract the media] bearing anti-gay placards – “God Hates Fags”, “Fags Eat Poop” etc – they are capable of being about as hostile and provocative as any group pledged to non-violence can be.

Much of the time while filming these pickets I felt embarrassed. I didn’t like standing too close to the group for fear of being mistaken for one of them. And yet I never felt a strong urge to shout at them.

A professional curiosity seemed to override any personal reaction I might have – and I was more intent on attempting to ask the most cogent and revealing questions. It’s also true that after a few days at the church, something strange happened: the message began to lose its shock value. I was, to some extent, desensitised – to the point where I’d sometimes be surprised how upset passers-by became when they saw the signs.

This tendency to become a little bit numb to behaviour that might have been shocking when first encountered is, in a way, a side effect of my journalistic approach. It’s important that I spend time with the people I do stories about, that I should even try to identify with them, so that I can better understand why they do what they do – what needs it fulfils for them, how they justify the behaviour to themselves.

The challenge for me is that while doing this I should never lose sight of the bigger context – the victims of the Westboro Baptist Church, the families of the young men and women whose funerals they picket, the neighbours whose atmosphere is poisoned by the daily hate the church promotes.

On the face of it, the fact that I end up liking the subjects of my films might seem weird on my part – perhaps a bit cold and disconnected. How come I don’t recoil or feel compelled to get into shouting matches with my contributors?

But it’s also important to remember, in the case of the most disturbing topics, that my films have tried to understand the mentality of the perpetrators, but without me being around the actual practice. The idea of making a documentary about an active sex offender is almost impossible to imagine.

But the paedophiles I interviewed in 2009 were locked up in a maximum security psychiatric hospital in California. And the ones I spent the most time with were those who had embraced the therapy that was on offer, and were attempting to become new people.

The question at the heart of the film was not simply “How does a paedophile think?”, but more importantly, “At what point do we trust that someone who has done something awful has genuinely changed?”

I’m actually quite a sensitive person. I don’t like being around violence. For a documentary about the porn industry, I found I didn’t have the stomach to be present for the more outre sex scenes and had to leave the set. During filming of a special about crime-fighting in Johannesburg in 2008, a vigilante I’d been following arrived for our interview with a badly beaten up “suspect” in the back of his truck.

I tried to communicate with the beaten man, but he wouldn’t speak. All the interviewing I’d been doing about the questionable tactics of the private security industry was thrown into the background as I wondered what, if anything, I should do to help. In the event, his injuries were not life-threatening.

But my reaction to the situation was far from being one of clinical detachment, and the experience made me think about the point at which it was appropriate to stop being a journalist and embrace one’s moral responsibilities.

In the end, the devotees of the offbeat and questionable lifestyles I make programmes about do not do things to be evil. The strangest behaviours are always answering some very normal human need – for love, for religious meaning, for a place in the world.

Most of the violent criminals I’ve spoken to have seen their actions as a response to a threat to them – or a necessary means of preserving their respect. The men who had preyed on children were motivated by sexual desire – a very distorted and dangerous version of an impulse we can all recognise. The Phelps clan of Westboro Baptist Church are motivated by family and religious yearning.

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I’d argue it’s often the humanness of flawed people in my films that makes them intriguing – to me and to viewers. Seen in that light, when asked about my penchant for spending time in controversial worlds, I’d have to say that I’m not the only one who does it. By watching the shows, you are doing it, too.