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Laugh? I nearly died

Omid Djalili's jokes about asylum-seekers have publicised a social issue and won him a One World media award nod. But has he compromised to meet the demands of pop documentaries? Fiona Morrow reports

Monday June 11, 2001
The Guardian

An asylum-seeker arrives at Dover: "Why are you here?" asks the customs officer. "My house was bombed," comes the reply. "No, why are you really here?" persists the bloke in uniform. The asylum-seeker shrugs: "Because I've always wanted to work in a chip shop in Basingstoke!"

It may not seem like a very promising subject for a comedy routine, but Omid Djalili's attempt to muster humour from the experiences of British-based refugees has won him a nomination in tomorrow night's One World Media Awards. "It's great, isn't it?" he beams. "Not that I'd ever heard of them before."

It seems especially apt that Djalili might walk off with a prize: he was born in Britain to Iranian refugees, who fled the Islamic revolution for fear of religious persecution - they practised Bahaism, a religion founded on the principle of world unification.

"I've always been someone who - for want of a better cliché - believes that the earth is one country," Djalili explains. "And I did some stand-up about that, pointing out that Brits can go wherever they want in the world, but just because someone's from Kosovo or Iran, their decision to move is dirty."

In fact, the time he spent with other exiled Iranians convinced him from an early age that leaving your country of origin is never taken lightly: "There was endless talk of returning to the promised land, of wishing one was back home. I really believe that people only leave because they absolutely have to."

Working it into his stand-up routine came about in response to the bandying about of the term "bogus" by politicians and the media; a call from Channel 4 asking if he was interested in making a documentary on the subject proved too good an opportunity to miss. The resulting production from Lion, Bloody Foreigners, was broadcast earlier this year to positive reviews, and has since garnered the One World nomination.

In Bloody Foreigners, Djalili travelled to Hull to meet asylum-seekers before handing over his worldly goods and attempting to live as a refugee himself. The film's insight comes from his genuine interest in those he talks to, and his unpatronising, unsentimental approach. If there are flaws they come from the ridiculous sight of Djalili "living" on a refugee's stipend of £5 per day for a measly two days.

He winces when the subject is broached: "Well, to be honest I felt completely the same way," he admits. "I thought: 'Here we go, TV tossers telling me what to do.' I kept a diary of the whole thing and I think if I ever publish it, a lot of people would be quite unhappy. They said: 'Be honest, say whatever you think.' So I did: we shot 26 hours and probably there were 10 of me saying, 'This is not a funny subject. You can't play with people's lives just to make a joke.' My whole problem was with the notion: 'It's about asylum-seekers, now let's make it fun.'

"At the end of the day I wanted to do a programme that was entertaining, educational, slightly elevating and showed the asylum issue as a global concern. To a certain extent, I think it did that, although it finished up as a bit of a pop documentary."

Djalili's mixed feelings highlight an increasing dilemma for broadcasters determined to play the ratings game at every opportunity: they want to look as though they have a social conscience, and they need to fulfil their multicultural and non-British programme remits.

A research project published last year by the Media Awards' sister organisation, One World Broadcasting Trust, found that between 1998 and 1999, 60% of all the coverage of the developing world screened on British television derived from travel and wildlife programming. And in the decade from 1989 to 1999, BBC1's output of programming from the developing world fell by 28%, BBC2's by 37%, ITV's a whopping 74%, and Channel 4's by 56%. Since its inception, Channel 5 has produced next to no original overseas content, relying instead on repackaged wildlife programmes.

Tomorrow night's award ceremony aims to encourage a turn in the tide by honouring those media professionals who have highlighted issues of global justice. Last year, Jon Snow (who calls the awards "the conscience of the British broadcast media") picked up the One World Special Award for his lifelong commitment to international affairs; this year, he's hosting the ceremony.

Despite the challenging and difficult nature of this project, Djalili concedes that many of the resulting gags still make it into his club routine. Channel 4 was impressed enough to offer him six more films: "They keep on saying things like 'It would be good if you could go to Cuba and interview Fidel Castro', and I'm like: 'And say what?' They don't have a clue," he laughs. "They want me to be a cross between Louis Theroux and an ethnic Mark Thomas."

©Copyright 2001, The Guardian

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