Review: Colombia with Simon Reeve

Simon Reeves standing outside a wooden tent-like building in a FARC campA few years ago I wrote two reviews on here of programmes featuring Stacey Dooley, a BBC presenter who features on ‘youth-oriented’ documentary programmes, and I was pretty scathing about her manner and about how she didn’t do justice to a lot of the subject matter. The two reviews get a lot of hits every time she’s on the TV. Sadly, Stacey Dooley is not the only BBC presenter that does not take the subject matter as seriously as it should: two weeks ago the BBC put out Colombia with Simon Reeve, in which the young presenter does a tour of the country which is just emerging from a decades-long civil war involving FARC, the Marxist guerrilla group which funded itself through drug trafficking and kidnappings, and right-wing paramilitaries funded by wealthy landowners and international corporations; in the hour-long programme he visits the capital Bogotá, the city of Medellín, some islands on the Caribbean coast, a port city where the paramilitaries had once dominated, and meets a leader of FARC known as “The Medic”.

Simon Reeve, unlike Dooley, is a well-established presenter who has been working for the BBC since 2003 and has presented programmes on a variety of places around the world, most recently Greece and Turkey, so I don’t know if this is his regular style or not. He grated on my nerves with his continual banal observations and stupid questions. For example, when presenting the Caribbean coast islands, he suggested that not many people know that Colombia has a Caribbean coast. Well, that might be because not many people have looked at a map, because you don’t need a map of a South American country to go about your everyday business round here, and maybe people associate the term Caribbean with English-speaking islands like Jamaica and Trinidad, but the north coast of South America does indeed face the Caribbean. He informed us that the islands had hosted wealthy tourists from Colombia’s elite, including its drug elite, and that many of the tourists were locals, but suggested that the ending of the civil war might mean that they get ‘discovered’ by overseas tourists as well. This, of course, is naturally a good thing; that Colombians might not be able to holiday in their own country (or live on the islands they were brought up on) wasn’t considered.

When visiting Bogotá, he meets a group of women who are refugees from a war-affected rural area, who sang in order to beg for clothes and shoes from people. A woman named Luz told Reeve that her family had owned land but had been approached with an offer to sell up, and they refused as it was all they had to live on. The men returned armed the next day and forced them off, and while they were at it raped Luz and her sister. Reeve sat there holding Luz’s hand with what looked like a blank expression on his face, which the camera kept cutting to as Luz kept talking; it should have kept on Luz rather than showing Reeve’s face and his hand on hers, as she was talking, while Reeve’s emotional response to it wasn’t really relevant. This may have been the editors’ decision or Reeves’s, but either way, it makes it all about him, not about the subject matter, which ruins the impact of emotional testimonies which should be allowed to speak for themselves. In another scene, a man has just told him about hearing paramilitaries torture people in a “chop house” in a slum area and he asks, “what on earth was it like to hear these sounds at night?” — why does he need to ask that? The viewer does, generally, have an imagination.

He goes out into the forest and visits a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp, and explains that the organisation were notorious for kidnappings, explaining that “one of the most famous, or infamous” of the victims had been held for six years, much of it chained by her neck to a tree (this may have been Ingrid Betancourt, who had been campaigning for the presidency when kidnapped in 2002). Actually, it was not she who was ‘infamous’, which means famous for bad character or deeds, but the incident — this slip should have been edited out, but wasn’t. His interview with “The Medic” produced the usual bland statements from him, claiming that “unfortunate things happen” during war, but that he personally committed no atrocities and did nothing that keeps him awake at night. Conveniently, at this point he’s called away to get in his helicopter to go and talk to FARC commanders elsewhere, but before getting on board he reassures Reeves of how important the peace process is. Reeves also follows the army as they destroy an illegal gold-mining operation, blowing up equipment including a mechanical digger, part of which lands a few feet away from them — because no war-tourist TV programme is complete without the presenter appearing to be in some sort of danger (Dooley did the “putting on a flak jacket and running with soldiers/armed police” too) but let’s face it: they would not have taken him to the FARC camp if there was still danger of his getting kidnapped.

To be fair, his behaviour isn’t as extremely inappropriate or crass as Dooley’s but the editing style does really put him front and centre rather than the subject matter; the sections where he is covering food and the new Medellín cable-car system were pretty good, although I question whether reconciliation might not take more than just getting a few ex-soldiers and ex-guerrillas together in a kitchen. He’s clearly done some research but the goal is clearly to make it ‘accessible’ and not to overestimate how much the viewer already knows about the country, hence the silly irrelevance about the Caribbean coast. I don’t think Simon Reeves’s presentation style is good for covering a country which is recovering from a civil war; perhaps it’s good for a programme which explores the culture, music and food of a country, but this should have taken someone with war-reporting experience or someone who could engage with people recounting traumatic experiences like rape rather than just sit there. Colombia’s a fascinating country but programmes about its civil war or the reconciliation process needs the right reporter, and that’s not Simon Reeve, I’m afraid.

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