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Nick Broomfield, the proto-Louis Theroux and his documentaries of failure

Louis Theroux is arguably one of the most familiar faces working in documentaries today. Since the debut of his series Weird Weekends on BBC2 in 1998 he has continued to guide television audiences into worlds as unusual and diverse as the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank to Fresno in California, the town his documentary dubbed "the city addicted to crystal meth". Despite being the son of famous travel writer Paul Theroux - who wrote the fascinating Great Train Bazaar among other books - Louis has another father, one who defined the form and style of his documentaries. That man is Nick Broomfield.

Like many of the great innovations in history, Broomfield landed on his peculiar style of documentary-making by a combination of influences and circumstance. Clearly driven by the cinema verité styles of D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman, Broomfield's early work was observational and unobtrusive. These films included Soldier Girls which follows a number of female recruits through basic training for the US Army and Chicken Ranch about a brothel in Las Vegas.

With his 1988 film Driving Me Crazythings changed considerably. Originally tasked with recording the rehearsals for a musical called Body & Soul featuring an all black cast, the film quickly becomes something else entirely. With the threat of being defunded hanging over the film the focus shifts from the rehearsals to the film itself, mainly the question of what is this film about (at one point they even get a writer in to add a dramatic scene to the film, to the confusion of the viewer, the film-makers and the writer himself). This was the film where Broomfield first stepped in front of the camera and basically became the moral compass of his documentaries.

The failure of Driving Me Crazy to be the type of film it was supposed to be had the unintended consequence of pioneering a cinematic form that was comparable to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. By the '00s blockbuster documentarians like Micheal Moore and Morgan Spurlock were casting themselves as the protagonists in their own films.

It's a mistake to call this style of documentary more biased than what came before however, as any number of verité films were ideological - everything from Triumph of the Will to Harlan County USA - now the film-makers were making their biases explicit. This is why Werner Herzog can say straight out at the beginning of his documentary on death row Into the Abyss that he is opposed to the death penalty and yet the film remains a credible work. It was now not as easy for the audience to be unwillingly fooled as it once was.

Broomfield wasn't the first person tasked with making a film about one thing who ended up making it about something else completely. A mere two years before Driving Me Crazy was released American documentary film-maker Ross McElwee released his film Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. The title on either side of the colon tidily differentiates what the film - which McElwee received a grant to make - was supposed to be about, compared to what it actually ends up being.

Towards the beginning of McElwee's film, he takes a boat ride with his sister who suggests that he should use his camera as a way to start conversations with women. This seemingly off-hand bit of advice ends up being the driving force behind the film, empowered by McElwee's seeming inability to find the right way to tell the story of General William Sherman and the Union army's march to the sea during the Civil War. He simply traces Sherman's march and hopes the story will reveal itself, and indeed as he meets and becomes attached to different women along the way this assumption proves to be fruitful.

The main difference between McElwee and Broomfield is that McElwee altered the purpose of his film to feature personal reflections in the style of the mock-documentary David Holzman's Diary, using the relationship between the camera and the author of the film as a means of expression in itself. For Broomfield his presence in his own films serves to offer a perspective on his subject matter in a different way. He discarded the false impression propagated by fly-on-the-wall documentary - that the camera isn't really there - and freed himself to challenge his subjects.

His films from Driving Me Crazy on became partly about the difficulty of making honest films, that is, films that are less than flattering to their subject matter. Many of Broomfield's films from the early '90s onwards became feature length attempts to interview a single individual, whether it be Sarah Palin, Margaret Thatcher or Suge Knight. However the pursuit of the interview proves itself to be something of a McGuffin at times, something that drives the film forward but is of little consequence in the end. This is particularly true of The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife. 

In that film Broomfield spends most of the time trying to sit down with Eugène Terre'Blanche leader of the South African white nationalist group AWB. When the interview eventually happens it amounts to Broomfield asking Terre'Blanche when he decided that the whites and the blacks were going to wage a war. Whether intentionally or not Terre'Blanche answers a different question and Broomfield's repeated failed attempts to get him to answer the question actually asked of him makes up the remainder of the interview. The interview is terrible and meaningless but by the time it concludes we have already gathered enough information about the AWB leader to form an opinion of him. In this way the film as a whole ends up being a success.

The pursuit of the interview is Broomfield's weapon for getting to the truth behind a story. This is why his 1993 film Aileen Wuornos: the Selling of a Serial Killer was not actually about America's first female serial killer, but was in fact about the way the people around her - friends, fans, lawyers, police - exploit her story for money. If you watch this film as a behind-the-scenes lead up to Broomfield's interview with Wuornos it shatters the illusion of the talking head documentary. We see the wrangling with Arlene Pralle, a born-again Christian who adopted Wuornos after she was arrested and who is trying to get money out of Broomfield before allowing him to visit Wuornos in prison.

Of course the planning of the interview reveals more than the subjects would like to be known about them and Broomfield confronts Arlene, calling her mercenary, and in the process shattering the impression she gives of herself as being someone timid and basically honest. This technique becomes a kind of meta-narrative in the 2003 film Aileen: Life & Death of a Serial Killer, in which footage of Wuornos' lawyer Steve Glazer asking Broomfield for money to interview Wuornos in the earlier film is used as evidence against him in a trial in the follow up.

What documentary film-makers do with their interviews is key to understanding the level of compromise involved in making the film. This is not to say that we need to see a Broomfield-esque level of pursuit before the actual interview for us to take it seriously. Louis Theroux for example has his method of getting his subjects to reveal themselves by playing the idiot. By willing to make himself look stupid and vulnerable he gives his subjects a false sense of security which allows them to be more honest than they would be with someone who makes them feel defensive.

Michael Moore on the other hand takes Broomfield's method to a more aggressive extent, like his attack on actor and NRA president Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. In Moore's hands it becomes a cheap tactic, something that aims to stamp an opinion on someone rather than have them reveal themselves. But whatever the adherents of Broomfield's style have done with this method of documentary making, good or bad, the style is undoubtedly a relevant model for exciting documentary film-making to this day.