Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Last night's telly: Bodyshock: I am the Elephant Man

In the dusty corner of rural Hunan Province where Huang Chuncai and his family live, young people often leave for the cities and eldest siblings are expected to take care of their aged parents.
That’s not the case with Huang - 31 years old and the oldest of three siblings - or his family. The first time we saw him, we knew why.
Since childhood Huang has suffered from Neurofibromatosis, a condition that has made his face a swollen mask of tumours. One eye is barely discernible, the other has been completely covered over by one of the many grotesquely long pieces of flabby flesh that ooze downward on his face.
His face makes up half of his body weight and has given him a hunchback. He rests it on tables when he’s sitting and holds it up with his hands when he moves around.
His mouth could be discerned by the presence of a swollen, sore-blistered tongue; tumours had knocked out all his teeth. When his family members or others spoke directly to camera in Chinese, they got an English-language voiceover. Only Huang got subtitles, his deformed mouth most likely making his words difficult to understand for Chinese speakers as well.
After spending time with his chain-smoking father, his heartbroken and often-crying mother, the younger sister who’d given up a good factory job and the younger brother who’d had his marriage disintegrate because both were needed to take care of their brother, it was time for the trip to the city.
There we saw potentially life-saving surgery - literally saw it, the Bodyshock cameras not backing away from blood-spurting, tumour-slicing detail - and the stitched, bruised, excruciating immediate aftermath.
By the end, Huang had a face that, while misshapen, was at least recognisable as a face. He knew his life would never be normal, but talked rapturously of perhaps being healthy enough to take care of his parents like a good Chinese eldest son.
The dignity with which Bodyshock treated this dignified man and his family was undercut by one poor decision. When preparing for a village feast in rural Hunan, they apparently don’t kill the pig before they go to work on its guts with an exceptionally big knife. The increasingly horrific sound of the pig squealing might have been enough for some other programmes to get this point across; Bodyshock left nothing to the imagination.
Trouble is, this was not a programme about daily life and traditions in rural Hunan Province. This was a programme about a man with a horrific illness - and who just happened to live in rural Hunan Province. The slaughtering was entirely peripheral to Huang’s story; an elderly neighbour had died, and the pig was to be part of the traditional funeral feast. In a documentary about, say, Hunan funereal traditions, such footage would have been a necessary if difficult-to-watch addition. Here it was a needless intrusion of gore into a sensitively told story. If the makers of Bodyshock want to convince viewers that theirs are sensitive portrayals of brave people rather than just macabre freakshows, they will in future want to keep out the unnecessary macabre freakshow imagery.