Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Toilet: An Unspoken History

BBC 4 recently aired a documentary called "Toilet: An Unspoken History," hosted by the Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn. (If you have problems watching it on the BBC website, it's on YouTube as well.)

The documentary begins with our affable host reminiscing on the toilet he used when he was at his uncle and aunt's in rural Wales, a composting toilet where you add ash to help the composting process. From there, he takes us to some of the oldest and most sophisticated toilets in ancient Rome. The documentary takes the viewers around the world and through time, first tracing the history and then projecting a possible future. We're taken to Japan, to view the super-toilets; to the World Toilet Summit; to the Golden Poo stand-up comedy show, where toilet humor is used to publicize the sanitation crisis; to Bangladesh, to look at issues of both rural and urban sanitation; to a university in Holland, where researchers are trying to taking up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge to "reinvent the toilet"; and other destinations. It's an informative documentary--I learned a lot that I did not know, such as the fact that princesses in ancient Japan would have their servants pour water in front of the toilet in order to mask the sound of them defecating. (Modern Japanese toilets often include a button that generates sound to accomplish the same thing.)

But in particular, I was impressed and pleased about the tone that the documentary struck. It was sensitive, professional, unabashed, and yet was gently humorous at appropriate times, more towards our own discomfort with the topic than the topic itself. It did not rely on grossing people out. When the host visited people in Bangladesh, he did not dwell on the disgustingness of their sanitation situation: he observed it calmly and pointed out the health effects. He noted that one of the reasons that people did not have sanitation is that the residents of the slums were, officially, squatters, and thus did not want to invest in infrastructure when they could be kicked out any day. The photography did not show people in compromising positions (unlike some I've seen) and treated them with dignity while not diminishing the problem.

What I saw as possible problems with the documentary can primarily be attributed to time constraints (it's only an hour): details that could have been elucidated, a lack of discussion of problems with particular approaches mentioned, and missing pieces of narrative. Overall, however, I think it is a fantastic documentary and I would heartily recommend it for both people who've been studying this for a while and for people new to the topic.

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