The changing face of anthropology docs

Most anthropology docs require a presenter to connect the audience with the area being covered. But when the BBC commissioned KEO Films to create a doc on the slums of Lagos, Nigeria, they took a chance and let the people and the place speak for itself. In his own words Will Anderson, series producer & director at KEO Films, explains the change in his approach to anthropology.
April 15, 2010

Anthropology shows on TV these days generally require a presenter to go and live in a remote jungle, desert or icy wilderness for a month or so, in order to find out how small groups of tribal people have adapted to their environment. I should know, at KEO Films, we’ve made lots of them.

But when the UN announced last year that over 50% of the world’s population now live in cities, it seemed to us that if we wanted to try to understand where humanity was heading in the 21st Century, we should take a trip to see how people are living in extreme urban environments. After all, human beings had just become an urban species, and no-one seemed to have noticed.

So we headed to Lagos, Nigeria, for four months of filming in the slums and ghettos of the fastest growing megacity on the planet. We were inspired by statistics (like the fact that over the next 40 years the global population will rise to over 9 billion and that 95% of this growth will occur in the urban areas of the developing world) but we knew that statistics on their own were never going to connect us to an audience. It’s hard for anyone to care that much that there are a BILLION people around the world living in slums… until, of course, you actually meet some of them.

And not just meet them, but really get to know them. To this end, we were helped enormously by the BBC’s decision to ditch the idea of taking a presenter into the slums, and instead rely on our contributors’ stories alone to carry the films. It was a risk: an observational documentary series set in the slums of Africa does not immediately have ‘ratings hit’ written all over it, but knowing this forced us to find new ways to tell these stories, and helped us, in the end, to produce a series that is even more unexpected and exciting than any of us first dared hope.

Most of today’s extreme adventure and anthropological presenters make great TV, but their shows come with their own built-in safety net. If the stories on the ground fall apart, or the contributors turn out to be unwelcoming, you can always rely on the presenter’s journey to provide the narrative, and their personality to engage an audience. But every now and again, as Welcome to Lagos proves, its worth taking the risk, and leaving the safety net at home, because the rewards, when you allow your characters to present their own stories, are enormous.

Welcome to Lagos airs on BBC 2, Thursdays at 9pm on April 15, 22 and 29

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