Man With A Movie Camera: A Profile of Nick Broomfield
He’s made films in some of the most inhospitable places in the world; brothels and prisons, war-zones and inner-city slums, always with an eye for characters, social structures and glaring injustices. Nick Broomfield is one of the best known documentary makers in the world, thanks largely to his own presence in his films, holding a furry boom mike with his favoured Nagra tape recorder strapped to his chest.
Born in London in 1948, Broomfield is the son of an accomplished photographer and often accompanied his father Maurice on his shoots. He studied law and politics at Cardiff University before moving on to The British National Film School where, inspired by the observational style of Fred Wiseman and D. A. Pennebaker, he was encouraged by his professor Colin Young to make films about the people and places around him.
His first film, 1978s Who Cares, completed while Broomfield was still a student, was made with a borrowed wind-up Bolex camera and spare film stock. The 18 minute short told the story of what happened when an entire Liverpool community were transplanted from an inner-city “slum” to a suburban high-rise tower block. It was also at National Film School that Broomfield met Joan Churchill, who would become his partner in life and work, his creative collaborator and cinematographer on several films and later, the mother of his son.
Broomfield’s career can be divided into two more or less equal parts and two distinct styles. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, he filmed in a cinema vérité style, piecing together quietly observed footage to craft a story with minimal voice-over, often on a socially conscious theme. His early documentaries reflect this carefully honed and composed style. Tattooed Tears (1978) took the viewer inside a tough youth detention camp in California while Soldier Girls (1981) followed a platoon of female recruits during basic training at a US Army camp, and won the Robert Flaherty Award for Best Feature Documentary. 1983s Chicken Ranch, a precursor to Broomfield’s later interest in commoditised sex, investigated life inside the famous, legal Nevada brothel of the same name, observing and interviewing sex workers and their clients.
His next two documentaries, 1986s Lily Tomlin and 1988s Driving Me Crazy observed the planning and rehearsal of complicated theatrical stage shows. It was during the filming of Driving Me Crazy that, out of necessity, Broomfield adopted the technique that would become his signature style. Engaged to make a film about theatrical impresario Andre Heller’s multimillion-dollar black musical 'Body and Soul,' Broomfield gets pitched into the middle of a first-class disaster. Running out of time and money and no longer able to control the shoot, a desperate Broomfield stepped in front of the camera, still holding his boom mike, and explained the difficulty he was having pulling the film together; the arguments, failed interviews and creative dead-ends.
Shortly afterwards, Broomfield started working on his first feature film. Released in 1990, Dark Obsession starred Gabriel Byrne and Amanda Donohoe and told the story of a group of privileged British aristocrats who conspire to cover up a hit-and-run accident after a night on the town. Part murder mystery and part psychological thriller, the film was released internationally to decent reviews but its limited success meant Broomfield was not to make a follow-up feature for another twenty years.
Returning to documentary, in the decade that followed Broomfield released a series of films that would define his career and make him a household name. 1994s Tracking Down Maggie had the director launch a relentless campaign to interview recently resigned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. What begins as a genuine journalistic attempt to gain access to the “Iron Lady” descends into a hilarious game of cat-and-mouse as Broomfield, now firmly in front of the camera, chases the retired politician across the United States as she promotes her autobiography.
For his next five films Broomfield remained in America and turned his eye to a series of gritty, confrontational stories from the underbelly of society. Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995) told the story of the controversial escort-agency boss, the daughter of a Hollywood doctor, became the most notorious pimp in Los Angeles with a celebrity clientele. Fetishes (1996) took Broomfield inside an exclusive New York S&M dungeon, interviewing the sex-workers and their customers as they explained their frequently eye-watering procedures and preferences. The film was commissioned by Channel 4, who then refused to screen it. Broomfield hit the headlines with his next film, 1998s Kurt and Courtney, which investigated the circumstances surrounding the death of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain in 1994 and the conspiracy theories that sprung up around the part played by his wife, Courtney Love. The film was due to screen at the Sundance Film Festival but was withdrawn when Love, who refused to be interviewed by Broomfield, threatened to sue the festival.
Sticking with the theme of music and death, Broomfield’s next film, 2002s Biggie and Tupac, told the story of the lives of hip-hop stars Biggy Smalls and Tupac Shakur, both murdered as part of a feud between rival factions in the multimillion dollar rap music industry. Broomfield’s careful analysis eventually pointed the finger of guilt at the police who, he claims, failed to protect the rappers when they were alive and mishandled the investigations into their deaths. For his next film, Broomfield returned to the subject of serial-killer and death-row prisoner Aileen Wuornos, whose story he had covered in 1993’s Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Made a decade later, 2003’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer covers the final months before her execution and includes the last interview she ever conducted. Both films were the inspiration for Patty Jenkins’ Oscar-winning feature Monster.
In 2006, Broomfield adapted his style again for what he referred to as ‘direct cinema’, using non-actors to play themselves in reconstructed situations in a combination of drama and documentary. Inspired by the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster, when 23 Chinese immigrant cockle pickers drowned after being cut off by encroaching tides, Ghosts was made for Channel 4 and screened internationally, raising almost half a million pounds to help the victims’ families. The following year, Broomfield worked with former US Army marines and Iraqi refugees, as well as known actors, to tell the story of a controversial conflict in the second Iraq War, Battle for Haditha. The film investigates the massacre of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town in 2005, reportedly as revenge for an American soldier killed by a roadside bomb. The semi-improvised film was shot sequentially, using real locations and (typically for Broomfield) a very small crew.
Broomfield’s latest documentary, 2011s Sarah Palin: You Betcha sees the director travel to the small town of Wasilla, Alaska, to interview the friends and neighbours of Republican politician Sarah Palin in an attempt to find out what makes the former vice-Presidential candidate tick. Broomfield is currently in pre-production on The Catastrophist, a feature film adapted from Northern Irish writer Ronan Bennett’s novel about the relationship between a novelist and a journalist in 1960s Belgian Congo as the nation begins to move towards independence.