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Being Ginger (2013, Scott P. Harris)

This documentary made by an American film student in Edinburgh begins as a light-hearted look at his own quest to find one of those elusive women who “have a thing for gingers.” (An amusing observation made by Harris is that he often meets women who “have a friend who really likes gingers”, but never an actual member of this selective club.) But, like many documentaries, Being Ginger morphs as it progresses, becoming a more serious look at Harris’s experiences of childhood bullying and the impact it’s had on his social interactions in adult life. Most of us have had experiences of feeling isolated and somehow ‘other’, so Harris’s story should chime with many; for us ginger-haired folk, unsurprisingly, it holds a particular resonance.

One day at school, when I was around 16, I passed on the stairs a boy with whom I was sort-of-friends. After the usual “Alright”/”Alright” exchange of grunts, he stopped and said, in I believe a well-meaning spirit, “Hey Sam, you don’t look that ginger anymore.” It was like I had had some serious medical condition, the effects of which were no longer too visible.

Being Ginger challenges the idea that this is one prejudice that is actually harmless. The word “ginger” has become inescapably comic, and it’s an easy laugh for a lazy comedian. No doubt many people who indulge in ridiculing, humiliating and bullying others because their hair happens to be a particular colour convince themselves that it’s “just a joke” or “not a big deal”. It’s easy to dismiss ingrained prejudice as “not a big deal” when it doesn’t affect you personally.

Harris tells us painful stories of childhood abuse by classmates and teachers, but the focus of the documentary is the vox pops carried out in the street. Strangers are asked if they’re attracted to ginger-haired people and how they feel about them, drawing out the ingrained prejudices in the process: gingers are “fiery tempered”, “loners”, “nerdy” etc.

The great thing about this method is people reveal themselves and their attitudes in a spontaneous way. They haven’t prepared so, apart from the awareness of being on camera, there is no filter. One of the stand out moments of Being Ginger is an interview with a young woman who calmly comes out with an astonishing onslaught of bigotry, the whole time a smile playing on her lips: “There’s no, like, hot people with freckles – the gingerness is all speckled across your face”; “You’re not just ginger, you’re like the joke ginger, like you’re so ginger.” As Harris’s friend comments, “It’s like she was sent from some anti-ginger god down to you, to tell you off.” It’s genuinely alarming to see how comfortable she is saying this stuff, and to realise in the process how common these attitudes must be. The woman shows up again in the clips over the credits – reason enough to watch to the end.

Being Ginger is not a great documentary. It needed to go deeper into the roots of the prejudice and Harris could have carried out more detailed interviews with other ginger-haired people to hear their experiences. But it’s important to have a film dealing with this issue. And it stays with you.

 

Sam Bowles

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