When “The Great” Walt Disney initiated the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to select 25 short documentaries to mark its 75th anniversary this year, some wags wondered whether the film house might have taken a dig at the organization for declining its mandate. (Some have speculated that the curators for a compilation being made of the 25 previous Disney films are likely to be selected.) Still, a feast of “world affairs” documentaries, on any given topic, is rare.
Now the BBC is walking that balance in launching its own evening program that includes some hits like 1962’s “Slavish Reign,” 1967’s “The People Went Away” and 1972’s “East of Eden.” Unsparingly dark, the program spotlights the people who went to war and created the conflicts that have, regrettably, been recurring for 80 years, a long time. It’s not the kind of program that families will want to watch together.
But the show is uplifting and concisely observed. Through both overtly political themes (“The Limits of Power”) and subject matter (from “The Lion King” and “Star Wars”), it succeeds in understanding, and reaching across, dark ages of geopolitics and crises. It’s a first for the British broadcast services, which have avoided taking political positions in their documentaries.
The program, available to U.K. residents through a downloadable, digital-only app, premiers Wednesday on BBC HD. Scheduled to run from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT, it’s not your normal production. A powerful series of onstage interviews that show the harrowing, emotional and often humorous conundrums of war and ethnic conflict — be it in Hungary, Bangladesh, Congo, Iraq or Croatia — follow host Richard Hammond to locations around the world. These topics come from thoughtful accounts of interviewees, and not news reports which include suggestions of blame, criticism or cover-ups.
At the end of the program, you may find yourself cackling with delight when the head of some of the most striking war zones in the world appears and touches on his life’s work. There’s no shortage of documentary interest around war, but Hammond puts it back in focus. The British broadcaster has been tinkering with approaches to documentary programming for a long time, and he’s setting the rules with his self-evident charm and experience. It’s a triumph of pluck and imagination.Watch it here: