Misleading documentaries about ethnic minority communities have a profound effect on both their subjects and audience.
In the past five years, a swarm of documentaries about migrants has flooded our television screens, invading our living rooms and taking over our evenings.
It’s time someone said something. We’re all thinking it.
Whether it’s a reality set-up mixing cultures, a spotlight on a town with a big first, second or later-generation immigrant community, or charting the arrival of recent refugees in an unfamiliar location, the entertainment value of British multiculturalism has not been lost on TV producers.
In recent times, they have often favoured the “social experiment” format to highlight – and sometimes attempt to bridge – cultural divides. The more gimmicky the format, the more complaints and debates these shows invite. But they divide opinion among media commentators, immigration experts and people from the backgrounds or areas explored. Where some see reductive and even incendiary pieces of entertainment, others see a rare human side to a story so often dehumanised in the mainstream media.
Stunty documentaries about British Muslims are the latest iteration of the genre. Remember Channel 4’s My Week as a Muslim last October – in which a white woman was dressed up and brownfaced to experience life as “a Muslim”? It received complaints from viewers before it was even aired, according to Ofcom.
“I for one am exhausted from other people telling the stories of Muslim women – whether it’s Muslim men or non-Muslim women,” wrote the journalist and producer Farah Jassat for the New Statesman at the time. “Muslim women don’t need intermediaries validating their experiences for them.”
What about Muslims Like Us earlier that year? Dubbed “Muslim Big Brother”, the BBC Two show last January saw ten very different British Muslims move into a house together, and was criticised for reducing Islam to a reality show, with some commentators, like the playwright Alia Bano, seeing it as a reductive tick-list of stereotypes. “Muslims Like Us didn’t quite feel like dynamite viewing – more like a roll call of the 10 usual stereotypes… You could almost see the producer ticking off each controversy from a list,” she wrote in the Guardian.
These came along years after Make Bradford British, the pioneering televised social experiment in British multiculturalism, by Love Productions – the company behind the incendiary poverty safari of Benefits Street – which invited eight Bradford residents who failed the UK citizenship test to live together in 2012.
The Telegraph’s then showbiz editor, Anita Singh, condemned the programme for pigeonholing her hometown: “Bradford is the lazy TV executive’s go-to destination for racial disharmony,” she wrote.
The west Yorkshire city has received more than its fair share of visiting camera crews, mostly pursuing stories of racial tension and poverty: Bradford: City of Dreams (BBC), Breaking out of Bradford (BBC), and the dramas White Girl (BBC), Britz (Channel 4), The Last White Kids (Channel 4), Edge of the City (Channel 4), Last Orders (BBC), and Bradford Riots (Channel 4).
AUTHOR: ANOOSH CHAKELIAN