Hearts of darkness uncovered in the classroom and the Congo

Sat, Nov 3, 2012, 00:00

TV REVIEW:THE TRAGIC DEATH last weekend of Erin Gallagher, the Co Donegal teenager whose suicide has been attributed in part to online victimisation, made the issue of bullying a full-blown media story this week – so David Coleman’s new three-part series, Bullyproof (RTÉ One, Tuesday), was timely.

There’s a lot to like about our foremost TV clinical psychologist. He puts a kindly, accessible face on his profession, and he’s plain speaking and no nonsense when he deals with a range of family dysfunctions. He delivered interesting insights into the effects of bullying and showed how one school, Coláiste Éanna in Dublin, isn’t just pinning the standard anti-bullying policy on the wall but translating it into action in a way that’s meaningful to the students: the teens there are required to anonymously fill out forms saying if they have witnessed any bullying, so the school can know what’s going on and take steps to intervene.

The open environment of “telling” also helps the students, as one boy said, differentiate between “what’s ordinary slagging” and “the fellas getting extra slagging”. Interventions then take place with the bully and the victim.

What was troubling about Bullyproof was the use of three real case studies, so we saw frank, raw therapy sessions with three children who have been bullied. Fourteen-year-old Hazel, 13-year-old Jade and 10-year-old Eamonn were exceptionally articulate and brave in telling their harrowing stories, but should they, as vulnerable children, be on television in the first place? Bullyproof was aimed at adults. Do adults really need a child’s pain to be stripped bare and revealed to them on screen before they can comprehend?

There has to be a cleverer way to communicate the message. We’ve seen any number of programmes in which identities are concealed or actors play people in a range of situations – domestic abuse, addiction, depression – where the telling of their stories is a generous act that benefits the wider understanding of an issue but where the long-term cost to them of appearing on TV, which can be a cruel, disposable medium, is minimised.

“What would happen if you cried?” Coleman asked Jade, who was explaining how bullying affected her. “Would it help?” he said, his voice dropping to a near whisper as the child’s eyes filled up and the camera zoomed in to capture the moment when tears fell. For me it was uncomfortable, voyeuristic viewing. How will Hazel and Jade fare when they go to school on Monday?

Next week’s Bullyproof takes the therapy further and tracks how it’s working, but even that’s short term. It’s hard not to look at a programme like this and wonder what happened next, long after the cameras have packed up and moved on. Will having their faces on national TV in this small country have helped them? Will their parents – all interviewed, all genuine, caring, deeply worried people – believe it was worthwhile? I’m glad Eamonn and his mother have emigrated to be with his dad – it seemed the root cause of his unhappiness – though this series will stay in the archives long after these children might want to forget about it.

THE COMPREHENSIVE ANDinformative Prime Time discussion (RTÉ One, Tuesday) before Bullyproof focused on teen cyberbullying and came with a warning from its presenter Miriam O’Callaghan that viewers might find its examples of website postings disturbing.

And of course they were, but it’s the same content created, viewed and replied to any number of times a day by our teenagers. It showed some of the postings from the ask.fmsite, which included sexualised language and alarmingly abusive remarks, the sort of stuff that wouldn’t be printed in a newspaper. The warning to TV viewers established context and set boundaries, highlighting one of the differences between traditional and social media.

FOR THE FIRST INa new series of What in the World documentaries (Tuesday, RTÉ One), Peadar King travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, forever known as “the heart of darkness”, as it was labelled by the novelist Joseph Conrad. It’s the poorest country on the planet, said King, requiring the second-largest international peacekeeping force – the largest is in Darfur – to try to carve a small oasis of safety in a chaotic, brutal country mercilessly ruled by ever-changing militias.

King’s style is straightforward and direct, with no fancy visuals or macho posturing about the dangers of filming (though you sensed a permanent threat in a country where children carry Kalashnikovs). But no embellishment is needed to communicate the living horror of thousands of children abducted and forced to fight for the militias and women raped as a weapon of war.

He interviewed a former child soldier and a teenager who had been kidnapped as a sex slave by the militia but who, pregnant, had escaped and found refuge in a centre – their identities, incidentally, were concealed, presumably to protect them from repercussions. King told the story clearly and powerfully. It’s impossible in such a short film to fully explore the geopolitics and history of a large, complex country that’s permanently at war, but he did give an insight into the day-to-day reality of life in DR Congo. Realistically, given what he had shown us, it ended without a glimmer of hope.

MAKERS OF BOTTLED WATERmissed a trick by not heading to Gleann na nGealt, or Glen of the Mad, on the Dingle Peninsula and buying the two wells there. They were first discovered in the 1500s, and for centuries depressed and “mad” people have headed to that very beautiful part of Co Kerry to take the waters because of the benefit on their mental health. During the last century a story grew up that the water contained lithium, a chemical that is now acknowledged as a mood stabiliser. There was lot of local lore and history in Cogar (TG4, Sunday) before the real business of testing the water. As a scientist, Henry Lyons was sceptical, believing that if people’s mood was lifted it was because the glen is a beautiful, peaceful place. He found that the water, particularly in one of the wells, contains relatively high levels of lithium – more than 13 times the norm for the general water supply, so it must have some effect. Although the locals were thrilled with the news, Lyons said you’d have to drink 2,000 litres a day to get the minimum prescribed dose.

Get stuck into . . .

Afternoon schedules are clogged with antiques and property programmes, so Today (RTÉ One, daily), a new sofa-based magazine-style offering, with Dáithí O Sé, Maura Derrane, Norah Casey and Bláithnaid Ní Chofaigh, might be a livelier alternative.

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