Known as the adventurous, offbeat, quasi-impromptu celebrity hunter-cum-interviewer, we pay tribute to one of the best documentary film makers in the business...
The name Nick Broomfield is today synonymous with highbrow documentary filmmaking. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Broomfield (now 64) has carved a niche for himself as the adventurous, offbeat, quasi-impromptu celebrity hunter-cum-interviewer known for a brazen boldness in the face of adversity. Broomfield’s films span an unabashedly broad and eclectic range of subject matter from the high profile, including Margaret Thatcher, Eugene Terre Blanche and Sarah Palin, to the tabloid, including Courtney Love, Tupac Shakur and Heidi Fleiss. Broomfield has even made two full-length documentaries about the life and death of notorious American serial killer, Aileen Wuornos.
Where Broomfield differs from other documentarians is both in his mock-casual insistence on appearing in the films himself (however accidental and nonchalant this might appear) and in his subtle use of humour (often disarming his prey into surprisingly off-guard admissions). Broomfield is on record as having said that his own appearance in these films is more a result of accident and necessity, especially in those such as Tracking Down Maggie (1994) and Kurt And Courtney (1998) in which his intended subjects proved so elusive that the very act of Broomfield’s disastrously-thwarted attempts to make films about them became the actual subject of the finished works.
Of course, Broomfield is shrewder than he is given credit for and embraces his faux-cameo identity with relish, as was made clear when he starred in a series of five Volkswagen commercials (1999) in which he appears on-screen brandishing his trademark boom microphone and tape recorder. In a sense, Broomfield’s personal brand is now so well-recognised that he has effectively turned himself into the equivalent to anthropology as to what David Attenborough is to wildlife. Broomfield is also a clear forerunner to Louis Theroux in that both documentarians use a clever mix of sneakiness and humour to outwit their subjects.
I was lucky enough to meet Nick Broomfield at his Q&A screening of Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (2011) at the Duke of York Picture House in Brighton a year ago, and asked him about this. I pointed out that documentaries are often thought of as serious things but that he somehow manages to inject them with humour, often at the very moments when he appears on screen. I asked if this was deliberate and if he thought that humour was important in getting across a serious message, and if he believed that his films would be as successful if he didn’t actually appear in them. Broomfield replied: “Well, it’s one way of surviving three months in Alaska in the middle of winter,” which got a big laugh from the audience. Broomfield was referring to his Hobbit-like mission through the snows of Alaska to track down Sarah Palin and interview her, resulting in the usual Broomfield-esque comedy of errors. He continued: “It was unbearable. And so we would crack as many jokes as we could during the day just to get through it. But I think it (humour) is important. I mean, I think one or two of the first films I made were very serious and I realised that the audience were only reacting with one emotion, and that it got very tiring after a while. I think you tend to say the same thing over and over and over, if you’re hitting an audience with the same tone and the same emotion. And I think if you can get a wider reaction, which is pretty much how real life is, I think… there’s gallows humour, and I think tragedy and comedy are very closely related. And I think if you can get that into a documentary and still keep it being accurate, it’s great. It’s certainly more fun to make.”
Of course, as much as Broomfield might enjoy the limelight, he is still a serious filmmaker whose work often affects actual, genuine change. His film about Sarah Palin was widely credited as a reason that the Republican Party refused openly to endorse or encourage her to run against Obama in 2012. His film Kurt And Courtney revealed mistakes and oversights in the police’s detective work conducted after Kobain’s presumed suicide, heavily implying that Courtney Love was behind her husband’s death. Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003) also reveal many examples of serious negligence by many figures of authority ranging from the state itself to Wuornos’ parents and even her own attorney. Broomfield’s work suggests that the state ultimately put to death a raped woman who had decided to plead guilty and face execution rather than continue to suffer the political circus surrounding her case.
As well as his documentaries, Broomfield has begun to make feature films in a style that he refers to as ‘Direct Cinema’ – a documentary-inspired style of filmmaking which employs non-actors and encourages improvisation. Ghosts (2006) revolves around the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster in which 23 Chinese immigrant cockle pickers were drowned by suddenly-rising high tides. The film has raised half a million pounds for the victims’ families. Battle For Haditha (2007) is concerned with the Haditha massacre in Iraq of 2005 and counts both ex-marines and Iraqi refugees among its cast. Broomfield’s legacy as a serious filmmaker, therefore, is safe. Furthermore, Broomfield is a founder member of the Morecambe Bay Victims Fund, has received the California State Bar Award for contribution to legal reform, and been awarded several honorary doctorates. Most fittingly, perhaps, Broomfield has been awarded the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Documentary. His films are informative, insightful and – more often than not – entirely gripping. I look forward to the next one.