Portraying Lagos

A BBC documentary is accused of poverty porn by a Nigerian Nobel laureate:

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Soyinka said that Welcome to Lagos, the BBC2 observational documentary which follows various people in poor areas of the city, was “the most tendentious and lopsided programme” he had ever seen.

The series of three programmes, which concludes tomorrow, follows groups of people living in three impoverished areas: a rubbish dump, the Lagos lagoon and the city’s beach area. The narration from the black British actor David Harewood overtly praises their resourceful resilience.

Go on.

The 75-year-old [Soyinka], who splits his time between the US and his home outside Lagos, added: “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is – a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronising. It was saying ‘Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation’.

“One could do a similar programme about London in which you go to a poor council estate and speaking of poverty and knifings. Or you could follow a hobo selling iron on the streets of London. But you wouldn’t call it Welcome to London because that would give the viewer the impression that that is all London is about.”

UK residents can watch the show on BBC iPlayer here.

2 thoughts on “Portraying Lagos

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    April 30, 2010 at 6:32am

    Prof is my favourite African writer by a country mile. If you want to get a flavour of Nigeria as it is for Nigerians, look no further than his most recent volume of memoirs: You Must Set Forth at Dawn. Absolutely brilliant.

  2. @booksquirm

    April 30, 2010 at 5:25pm

    Thanks for highlighting this and linking to a great article.

    I’m starting to see the phrase “give a voice to”, as said by the BBC spokeswoman in defence of the programmes, as a bit of a red flag: a misunderstanding hazard often follows.

    It’s not just pedantry to say that most people already have a voice, that is, the expression ‘give voice to’ is not reserved for the speech impaired. Maybe it’s used to mean amplifying someone’s voice so that more people can hear it; providing a platform in an attempt to elevate the perceived status of the person’s voice and so their views; creating a form around which an audience can gather to hear the voice, a medium or method through which an audience can interact to discuss the views voiced or even a way in which an audience can interact with the owner of the voice. All these things are a form of packaging. If we’re walking down a street and I tell you something, that’s me using my voice. If you hand me a megaphone and I agree to use it to say the same thing to the rest of the street, what happens next is down to you plus me. My voice is the same but you’ve provided a means of presenting it to others – packaging. If the megaphone’s fuzzy and crackly, it’s disingenuous of you to say ‘that’s just her voice’.

    Saying you’re ‘giving voice to’ someone through a film implies that all the choices you made, from deciding medium, location, subjects, through editing, distribution and promotion, really weren’t that important and had little impact on the result. When someone disagrees with how you’ve packaged something, saying you’re just ‘giving voice to’ the person packaged is like saying ‘you can’t disagree with me because I didn’t do anything’. Very odd.

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