TURN THAT THING OFF: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield

Film/Video Features
TURN THAT THING OFF: Filmmaker Nick Broomfield
Jun 1, 2000, 04:36

Ever since director Nick Broomfield first stepped in front of his own camera he has been a lightning rod for hostility from not only his subjects, but also his peers. Arguments within the film world over Broomfield's particular brand of guerilla filmmaking generally concern the integrity of his style; that is, whether or not he lends the objectivity required of responsible journalistic film.

Traditionally, documentary filmmakers abide by a strict modicum of conduct that dictates their films are to passively observe their subjects—a hypocritical concept that conveniently ignores the fact that scenes in documentaries can be as premeditated as those in Hollywood features. It is a doctrine that Broomfield himself adhered to for well over ten years before deciding his work was advanced by his own participation, and even though fellow director Michael Moore was widely lauded for employing much the same technique in his 1989 film Roger and Me, Broomfield has been met with as much scorn and criticism as he has admiration.

Add to the aesthetic argument the indisputable fact that Broomfield's chosen subjects over the last decade have received more coverage from gossipy, schlock television programs like Hard Copy and Inside Edition than he could hope to provide were he to release every frame of raw footage shot for each film. Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain Courtney Love, serial killer Aileen Wournos, and ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, fascinating or not, are certainly no strangers to the world of yellow journalism, nor are they to the public at large. To undertake a project on any of these notorious celebrities or their related scandals might seem like an exercise in redundancy, the decision of a half-assed filmmaker apathetically selecting topics with more than enough fuel already thrown on the fire. There are those who would say this description fits Mr. Broomfield to a T. Put bluntly, these people don't know shit from shoeshine.

Using either argument as justification for discrediting Nick Broomfield's work is as ignorant as criticizing Hunter S. Thompson for not really being a journalist. Sure, Thompson may consistently sign off with the handle “doctor of journalism,” but he has never concealed the fact that journalism has represented little more than a meal ticket, and that his particular approach—coined “gonzo journalism”—is as liberal as it is literal. It is a technique he defines as “…the act (or compulsion) of imposing a novelistic form on journalistic content.” Therefore, when Thompson waxes poetic on Nixon, the Hell's Angels, the Vietnam offensive, or a narcotics officers' convention, he is not so much reporting as he is wildly ranting on the consequences inflicted upon both himself and his subjects by his wildly fried libido.

Not that this fact should in any way ifvalidate the work of Dr. Thompson. Of course the truth is stretched; as Thompson freely admits, his claims that former president Richard Nixon “fucks pigs and sells used cars with cracked blocks” are blatant exaggerations, and it's hard to believe that someone would accept as much at face value. But therein lies the significance: Thompson is not concerned with facts that are readily accessible from the traditional media. What he provides, and what so few writers are blessed with, is perspective. “Gonzo” works because, more than anything else, Thompson can spin one hell of a fish tale, and because he has the foresight to realize a subject is made all the more interesting if you stick it with a red hot poker and note how it squirms. A narcotics officers' convention might not make a compelling read, but the story told from the perspective of an attendant whose brain was arrested by hallucinogenic spasms is.

In the same sense, it is perspective that separates Nick Broomfield from his colleagues. Much like Thompson, Broomfield rarely concerns himself with the regurgitation of public knowledge, focusing instead on observations unique to his own experiences with the subject matter. It is “gonzo filmmaking”; a no-holds-barred approach to the documentary genre in which every moment of the film's process is relevant. Financial collapses, aborted or unfruitful interview attempts, acts of physical aggression, technical mishaps, and a seemingly endless array of cartoonish hangers-on: all provide fodder for Broomfield's personal travelogue. The end result is a narrative on the director's successes and failures with each given subject, every film another episode in some ludicrous serial with Broomfield as protagonist. Each film's title could even be reconsidered as such, a la Charlie Chan films: Nick Broomfield in South Africa, Nick Broomfield and the Case of the Toilet-Licking Infantilist, and so forth.

A major factor in why this particular approach is even possible is that Broomfield generally employs a very minimal crew, which renders an immediacy to the filming not possible with large productions simply due to logistics.

Aided generally by perhaps only one or two camerapersons, and serving as his own soundman (instantly recognizable in films by the cumbersome tape machine swinging at his hip and trademark gargantuan headphones), Broomfield is enabled to keep the camera rolling at all times.

The combination of minimal crew and relentless filming strategy has not changed over the years, although the exhibition on camera of the voracity involved has been a slow evolution. Broomfield's first films after graduating in the late 1970s from the National Film School in England, lie safely within the realm of cinema verite, quietly observing matters as a fly on the wall instead of visibly forcing the action. In fact, Nick Broomfield appears on camera for an underwhelming total of three seconds in his first three commercially released films: Tattooed Tears, Soldier Girls (both co-directed with Joan Churchill), and Chicken Ranch (co-directed with Sandi Sissel).

Though the stylistic approach in the aforementioned films are complimentary, it is Chicken Ranch that perhaps best foreshadows what would become the defining element in Broomfield's later works: the ability to induce astonishing personal revelations from seemingly unwilling (or unwitting) subjects. A portrait of what was once known as “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (though the Ranch's owners pulled up stakes and moved to the desert outside Las Vegas back in the mid-1970s), Chicken Ranch is an incredibly frank look at easily exploitable material. The film centers around the interaction of the prostitutes at the brothel, both with clients and each other. It is the latter that best lays the groundwork for Broomfield's evolving style, most notably a scene involving what can best be described as a prostitute's version of a sewing circle. Four hookers from the brothel sit around a table talking about their various clients as though griping about how rotten their kids are. They then swap tricks of the trade, such as how to stop a man from performing forceful penetration (“I use to keep a glass ashtray right back here [points to head] so if he got rough…”) and the quickest way to get a man off from fellatio (“…you gotta push his legs apart, when he starts squeezing them together he's trying to stop.”).

Conversations and insights like these became a primary focus of Broomfield's work shortly thereafter, and his increasing mastery of interview techniques encouraged interviewees to reveal evermore astonishing information. He was beginning to mold a tighter focus on interview subjects with a plethora of things to hide, however, who would not be so easy to pry apart. To negate this, Nick Broomfield increased his own participation to include an active role on camera, and it would be his deceptive bumbling charm that would come to serve him best.

On the surface, Nick Broomfield is the stereotypical English bloke, with his perpetual “what, me worry” facial expressions and his deceptively innocent curious nature (perhaps best described in the New York Times as “milquetoast”). He bounces around in front of the camera as though he were a nature show host, only he's not content to just see a pack of lions lounging in the sun—he wants to see how many rocks he can throw before they lose their composure. It generally doesn't take long. Initial pleasantries with interview subjects soon give way to a subtle antagonism where Broomfield either asks far too probing a question, or simply leaves enough rope dangling for the interviewee to hang themselves with.

The brilliance in this method stems from the fact that Broomfield is often involved with one degree or another of con artist as subject, and he allows each to think he, the interviewer, is oblivious. They never realize that not only is Broomfield aware of the game being played, but is in fact executing a marvelous strategy—he baits his subject, traps them in a corner, then simply stands back and lets the camera roll. The end result is either the exhibition of a liar at his or her most blatantly cunning, or a blaze of hostile frustration directed at what the subject perceives as Broomfield's unbelievable stupidity.

Two of Broomfield's most widely available films, Heidi FleissHollywood Madam and Aileen WournosThe Selling of a Serial Killer, are the most stellar examples of this method in action. Both are also great models of perspective and Broomfield's ability to redirect attention to sides of a story virtually ignored by other media—much as Thompson did with Hell's Angels and Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail '72.

The legal troubles of Heidi Fleiss were a top news item and all-around media circus from day one. The emphasis, however, was not on Heidi Fleiss the madam, but rather on what Hollywood stars would be named at her court proceedings as having used her service. Other particulars of the story, namely Fleiss's on-again/off-again boyfriend (and chief informant to the LAPD in their investigation of Heidi) Ivan Nagy, were regarded merely as footnotes. Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss, on the other hand, is entirely based on the triangular relationship of Fleiss, Nagy, and another notorious long-time Hollywood madam, Madame Alex. Shot over a period of months leading up to Fleiss's eventual conviction, these three spend the course of the film's duration shooting Broomfield around like a pinball off of each other, taking every possible chance to exchange insults and even play mind games through him. Again, all three gather that Broomfield is dim enough to easily manipulate into believing their side of the story.

The only apparent true fact of this threesome's history is that Fleiss originally worked for Madame Alex as a call-girl before becoming a madam herself. The factual basis of any other particulars of the story from this point on are pure conjecture. Madame Alex tells Broomfield that Nagy sold Fleiss, at the time his girlfriend, to Alex to clear up a debt of five hundred dollars. Nagy's rebuttal to her claim is to proudly display his expensive condominium, boasting, “Do I really look like I need five hundred dollars?,” only to then, the next day, sell Nick a videotape of him and Fleiss together that he insists “…will show you two people in love with each other.” This love is expressed with Nagy's incessant pleading in a thick Hungarian accent for Fleiss to “…show me your poo-see Heidi, show me your poo-see,” and Fleiss's alarming lack of disgust when reporting, “Ivan, you've got some green stuff coming out of your dick.”

It is the relationship of Nagy and Fleiss which is played out most cunningly in the film. Apparently at one time in business together after Fleiss left Madame Alex (when Alex claims the two stole all of her clients), Fleiss eventually forced Nagy out of the deal and, in retaliation, Nagy set her up for the police. Amazingly enough, their relationship is so dysfunctional that Nagy's betrayal didn't completely end it. Instead, it is heightened on a level of constant one-upmanship. Nagy's comments to Broomfield on Heidi are reported back to her, to which she always reacts with a coy grin and a muffled snickering as she says, nearly under her breath, “Oh yeah?!” Her declarations that she is no longer involved with Nagy only excite him more, as he continually attempts to prove to Broomfield that they are.

Broomfield perfectly portrays himself as a dupe during the interviews, waiting instead for the editing room to reveal his observations. Consider the way he dissects the tape sold to him by Nagy, or the way he's silently chuckling during a phone conversation with Madame Alex, who is directing a tirade at him on the other end for apparently misusing her trust. Or his quiet casting of everyone in the film as a prostitute, filming all parties counting out their pay for granting interviews—a list that not only includes Madame Alex, but also pornstar Ron Jeremy and former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates.

The themes of manipulation and money again take center stage in Aileen Wournos. Wournos, regarded as the first female serial killer, is a former prostitute convicted of killing seven men who had solicited sex from her along a strip of Interstate-95 in Florida. While not quite the media spectacle that Fleiss's case was, it was a high-profile national news item as much for Wournos's courtroom demeanor as it was for her crimes. Some of these infamous courtroom scenes (including her cursing a prosecuting attorney with her hope that his wife and children get raped) are replayed often in a special on the cable network Court TV.

What this hour-long special doesn't even touch upon, and the crux of Broomfield's documentary, is the relationship between Wournos, her primary defense attorney Steven Glazer, and Wournos's adoptive mother, Arlene Pralle. The reason this angle is interesting is that Pralle, a devout fundamentalist Christian, had never even met Wournos before her trials began. Pralle maintains that she and her husband (who we never see and whose absence is not explained) had seen Wournos on television one night, decided she looked too pure to have committed murder, and proceeded to attend her trials every day, eventually forming a relationship with Wournos and soon thereafter adopting her. Glazer handled the adoption process.

Once Broomfield appears however, Pralle and Glazer, who also represented Aileen after her first trial, begin offering up deals that would give him all matter of personal correspondence between Pralle and Wournos, and interviews with both women. Standing in as Pralle's “agent,” Glazer attempts to negotiate a deal with Broomfield based on Arlene's demands (“Well, say for $10,000 you get the drawings, and the letters, and the whole bit” she offers up at one point, all the while feigning disbelief that she's in this position), taking every opportunity to promote his musical talents in front of the camera (playing Phil Ochs songs on an acoustic guitar and blaring tapes of himself covering Pink Floyd) and yet still finding the time to convince Wournos to plead guilty to her remaining charges, so she'll receive the death penalty and be rejoined with Jesus.

Meanwhile, there's still the point made of whether or not Wournos has been set up legally, as the police come under investigation for negotiating the movie rights to Wournos's case before her trials had even begun (a point also not touched upon in the Court TV special). There is the issue of why the prior rape convictions of Wournos's first victim, Richard Mallory, were not allowed as evidence to back-up Aileen's claims of self-defense. And there is Aileen Wournos herself, interviewed in prison at the end of the film, paranoid yet well aware that everyone, from Pralle and Glazer (who had begun suggesting ways in which she could commit suicide in prison) to the police to her former girlfriend (and police informant) Tirea Moore, was profiting from her.

Broomfield is once again being played by three separate parties, only now he isn't hiding his awareness. It's possible his reluctance to play along is due to the fact that Pralle and Glazer are novices at conning, and their strategy is so thin that Broomfield seems to lose his patience simply out of lack of respect. Only one other time (which we'll touch on later) has Broomfield so forwardly accosted one of his subjects as he does with Arlene Pralle. Her reneging on a deal for an interview with her after weeks of runaround finally proves too much, as Broomfield lets go, “I think you're a very, very deceptive person. And I think you've been playing games, and I think you're very mercenary. And I think you've been playing around with us and I've had enough.”

Not that conflict with his subjects is new, it's just that normally the aggression is being directed at him. You see, people tend to really hate Nick Broomfield, and he seems to relish it. His films thrive on extremes in behavior, and he's more than willing to induce those extremes, often during situations so tense you'd swear he'd finally gone too far. At times, Broomfield exhibits such balls it's amazing he can get them in the shot.

Perhaps nowhere has the magnitude of said balls been more plainly visible than in The Leader, His Drive, and The Driver's Wife. One of two films he made in South Africa (the other being Too White For Me, about native pop-star Chico Twala), The Leader refers more specifically to Eugene Terre'Blanche, a former South African police officer who is now the leader of the AWB (Afrikaner WeerstandsBeweging—not Average White Band), the largest white supremacist movement in the region. While attending AWB rallies in an attempt to interview Terre'Blanche, Broomfield eventually befriends J.P. Maier, the leader's driver. J.P. and his wife Anita provide a perversely humanist backdrop to the proceedings, both devout racists (who call their black cat “kaffer cat” in an attempt to teach their children to use the term) but frighteningly charming—J.P. helping in earnest to get Nick an interview with the leader, and Anita, with moments of cartoonish silliness (as when she accidentally points a gun at the leader at a rally) and a sly stubborn nature that's damn near cute enough to make you uncomfortable. They're both shown alone and in groups, alternately spouting off racist ideology and then dancing with one hundred other AWB members to “Dancing in the Dark” at a dinner banquet.

The Leader documents Broomfield's near buffonish attempts at trying to obtain a meeting with Terre'Blanche that only turns out to be, as J.P. put it, “the worst interview I've ever seen.” It's as if the point of the movie is for Broomfield to annoy every AWB member in sight and throw a wrench in the works at every opportunity, like some sort of wacky next-door neighbor character on television sitcoms. For proof, consider the amazing amount of time devoted to raking the leader's nerves; attempting unauthorized filming at AWB rallies, stalking Terre'Blanche on his driveway, listening in on conversations between AWB followers and the leader, interfering with the leader's security convoy on a highway, and countless minor annoyances.

The piece de resistance, the interview itself, lasts less than ten minutes and consists of Terre'Blanche's fuming at Broomfield for having arrived five minutes late for an interview that had been previously scheduled that same afternoon. Any attempts by Nick to apologize for his tardiness are met with condescending reprimands like those leveled at school children. “I'm not accepting your apology,” Terre'Blanche insists, “…I heard [Maier] say ‘if you're late, no interview,' yet you chose to be late! Who was so important that you were late, he must be one hell of an important man?!” Broomfield's response? “I think, uh, (to cameraman) weren't we getting some tea?”

He left the most powerful white supremacist in South Africa waiting while he had tea. See? Balls.

Not quite as severe a setting as Leader, but certainly another instance of Broomfield laying his neck on the chopping block, is Driving Me Crazy. A film documenting the production process of the musical Body and Soul, produced for German audiences by European theatre legend and former Warhol associate Andrew Heller, Crazy is not so much about the play itself as it is about the disaster that was the documentary's creation. Originally employed to make a film about the production of the musical with a budget of 1.3 million pounds, Broomfield arrives to realize the budget has been slashed to 300,000. Additionally, there is a conflict among the producers over whether the film should be made as a straight documentary, or a Fame-type film with a screenwriter and bits of actual rehearsal footage spliced in. Broomfield, meanwhile, hangs in limbo unsure of what type of film he's been hired to direct, and wondering if he should have even agreed to the job to begin with. Producers are yelling at him to do things their way, the hired screenwriter uses him as a scapegoat for his problems with the producers, and the stressed-out dancers and choreographers hate him for getting in the way. One particular choreographer shoves the camera on one occasion, then throws chairs at the crew on another. The cameraman runs into Duke Ellington's granddaughter during a rehearsal, with expected fall-out. Dancers make up stories involving Broomfield soliciting gay sex from them. The screenwriter pisses his pants over the lack of seriousness displayed in shooting his scenes, a tirade climaxing with, “…and I don't think you're cute anymore, Nick!”

Crazy also stands as the earliest installment in a series best described as the Nick Broomfield disaster films. These films, a group to which Tracking Down Maggie and Kurt and Courtney also belong, develop along the premise of not developing at all. They are failures, instances when the cooperation of concerned parties is not granted, and Broomfield emerges with little more than he started with, save a lot of humiliation. So unproductive are they that most sensible directors would shelve the footage forever, but with Broomfield they are part of the territory. He has said that he allows the direction of the story to dictate itself. In these instances, the story is that there was no story. It's a self-deprecating sort of glory inherent to all work “gonzo.” Maggie, and Kurt and Courtney are Broomfield's version of such Thompson pieces as “Saturday Night at the Riviera” (a celebratory tale of getting your ass handed to you by a bar full of pissed-off socialites) and “First Visit with Mescalito” (about the uncontrollable urge to take unknown drugs even though impending doom is certain).

Tracking Down Maggie and Kurt and Courtney are alike in that the people Broomfield tries to document (Margaret Thatcher and Courtney Love, respectively) are kept at bay by various handlers. With Thatcher, there are obvious security forces and members of Scotland Yard at every stop of her book tour (which Broomfield is following date by date). Even his attempts to obtain an interview through normal publicity channels are ignored. Undeterred, he shows up wherever Thatcher is scheduled to be, including unpublicized hair stylist appointments—just to let her staff know he knows where they are at all times. Still unable to make progress, he turns his attention to Thatcher's son Mark, at the time embroiled in an arms deal scandal that leads Broomfield to speaking with various underground arms smugglers who apparently reveal very little useful information. The film is ninety minutes of slamming doors and Thatcher's blond top bobbing above the security hurriedly rushing her past the camera.

Courtney Love, on the other hand, remains hidden from Broomfield through intimidation. She intimidates MTV into applying pressure to Broomfield's financial backers so that they drop out of the production. She intimidates former acquaintances so much that few will talk about her on camera, leaving Broomfield with few reliable sources with whom he can discuss Kurt Cobain's history with Love. He's left with a motley crew of junkies who may or may not have actually known the pair, and one former boyfriend of Love's whose only real contribution is a list Love prepared of ways to become a rock star (e.g. “Become friends with Michael Stipe”). He also spends time with Love's estranged father, who openly discusses his belief that Courtney hired someone to murder Cobain (a subject which he's written two exploitation books about), Mentors singer El Duce, who claims Love attempted to hire him for the job, and private investigator Tom Grant, whose conspiracy theories on the murder plot are the most widely publicized (and which Broomfield disavows any belief in during the film).

Kurt and Courtney fails to present any solid testimony that seems believable, and instead becomes a shining example of the way a celebrity's image is manipulated, with the truth so distorted it may no longer exist. Love herself only appears in the film once, in the film's most legendary moment. She is featured as the guest speaker at an ACLU awards dinner, after which Broomfield rushes the stage and indicts the ACLU for its hypocrisy in honoring someone infamous for her aggressive tactics in preventing journalists from reporting on her, an action he's rewarded for by being summarily ejected by Love's publicist and ACLU staff.

The legal battle surrounding the release of Kurt and Courtney in 1998 brought Nick Broomfield his first real experience with mainstream media exposure. Apparently displeased with her portrayl in the film, Love threatened to sue Broomfield and anyone who exhibited the film over licensing rights to music in the film by both Nirvana and Hole, which she maintains ownership of even though the recordings in question are owned by the BBC. The maneuver was enough to have the film removed from the Sundance film festival twenty-four hours before its premiere.

This was not however Broomfield's first legal battle over his work. Lily Tomlin, for example, has never been released for commercial exhibition due to a lawsuit filed by Tomlin over her dissatisfaction with the documentary about her one-woman show, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe. It was his first post-film school project, however, that brought the most dramatic consequences. Juvenile Liaison, a film which examines the tactics of the “juvenile liaison” squad of the Blackburn police force, was summarily pulled by the British Film Institute after its completion in 1976. The film had its premier at the House of Commons.

The “juvenile liaison scheme,” as it is sometimes referred to, involved Blackburn police officers who were assigned specifically to grade schools in London, in the capacity of intimidating children guilty of petty crimes from committing future trouble. The film Juvenile Liaison is nicknamed “the film the police arrested,” the trouble it created for the police so great that it remained banned from public viewing for fifteen years, amid government investigations of the division's tactics and the resignation of the officers in question. It was updated in 1990 with follow-up interviews and footage of the involved parties lives at present day, and released under the title Juvenile Liaison II.

In its presentation, Juvenile Liaison II is most similar to the also British-made “Up” documentaries, a series which began filming a group of children at age seven and continued documenting their lives every seven years. Here, the original footage from Liaison I of each child's experience with the liaison officers is presented alongside new footage, in an attempt to open up debate about whether or not the police tactics are preventive or destructive. Evidence presented: a seven year-old boy taken to a an actual jail cell to “see what it's like” after stealing another classmate's cowboy suit; a young girl relentlessly interrogated after allegedly stealing another girl's fountain pen, when upon completion the interrogating officer spits out, “She didn't break at all”; a slightly retarded twelve year-old boy dragged by the hair from his bed by an officer after hitting his aunt, shown fifteen years later at a special school and provided for by a Salvation Army family. It's hard to say whether or not these methods helped curb the perceived criminal impulse (only one child grew up in trouble with the law), though it's plain to see by the footage that all of the children have developed with continued problems; social, economic, physical, and, most obvious of all, emotional. They all just seem beaten.

Hunter Thompson has written before of his stumbling development of “gonzo” that its components are equal parts “accident and desperation.” Nick Broomfield's work has certainly relied heavily on both. What works is pure accident, with all relative elements falling into place somehow. The desperation comes from the man himself, frantically submerging himself in scenarios he is not often welcome in, searching for an angle that works. It is the display of this desperation that salvages his work when all directions lead to a dead end.

Over the course of his twenty-five year career as a director, Nick Broomfield has been insulted on camera what seems like a thousand times. He has received numerous threats of violence, and filmed incidents when those threats were followed through. He has spent countless hours associating with cops, convicts, junkies, porn stars, prostitutes, sadomasochists, racist zealots, gun-toting bigamists, arms dealers, and mercenary religious fanatics. And from all evidence, it seems the going never got weird enough for this director.


The above story originally appeared in Your Flesh #43

Filed Under: Film-DVD-VideoFilm-DVD-Video Features

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