Driven by Obsession

Nick Broomfield believes part of his brain doesn’t function ’til he becomes obsessed with his subject, and his work often betrays a deep concern that puts the filmmaker firmly in the frame as well. Nick Carson considers a technique that has attracted much acclaim and imitation in the documentary field.

“If the filmmaker is involved and affected, and forms personal relations, it becomes a way for the audience to do the same thing. This makes subjects accessible,” Broomfield argues. Speaking on his controversial Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora’s Box, he adds: “The more personal I made it, the more involving and more tolerable it became; maybe neutralised it in a way.”

His wide-ranging work plunges into some of America’s most complex and troubled minds in the likes of Biggie and Tupac, Kurt and Courtney and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer – a story now widely familiar after the release of Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster, and Broomfield’s own post-execution follow-up, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. With reality TV dominating prime-time schedules, 2004’s Guardian Hay Festival saw the veteran filmmaker debate whether life always produces better stories than fiction.

Truth vs. fiction

The impact of films such as Monster can only increase when the audience realise that it’s a true story, and the popularity of cinematic documentaries such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 certainly demonstrates the public’s desire to unearth the truth about the world around us. But, Broomfield argues, real life doesn’t always speak for itself.

“There has been a bit of a panic within TV stations about the dwindling audience share, and that panic has resulted in a retreat into reality TV,” he observes. “But that market is bottoming out: audiences are sick of playing at that kind of programme. They want more answers, and now they’re going to the cinema to find those answers. TV’s following behind.”

Keep it faithful

The extent to which reality can be moulded into entertainment should vary depending on the individual case, Broomfield admits, but for intricate subjects documentaries should be faithful and not simplify the issues at hand. “Capturing the Friedmans, for example, presented the whole subject of incest in a very, very complicated way,” he says of Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 chronicle of the collapse of a comfortable suburban family. “It involved you in the plot of family: the convoluted relationships. I think it is very important that we, as a group of people, use these complexities.”

The golden rule for spotting volatile, valuable material is when the interviewee shocks the interviewer: there’s a fair chance that the viewer will react in a similar way. “If I feel that I desperately want to leave the room, I know I have put something in,” Broomfield reveals. “If I ever feel that in the editing room I want to change it, it’s very difficult always to do the right thing and stay true to the subject.”

In the public eye

A distinguishing feature of Broomfield’s style is his tendency for personal involvement: he frequently appears in front of the camera wielding his trademark sound mic, and builds up a relationship with his subjects. After keeping up correspondence with Aileen Wuornos for several years, he was subpoenaed as a witness in her final court appearance in 2002, where extracts from Selling of a Serial Killer, made a decade earlier, were shown as part of her defence. He was also granted the last interview before her death.

“Until 1988 I did a lot of films that I wasn’t in at all, which were more traditional cinema verité films. Then I started asking different questions and doing different kinds of films – much more investigations,” he recalls. “Obviously you get the structure and the style to fit the film you’re telling. I was doing a lot of subjects where people often defined themselves by what they didn’t want to talk about than what they did. And that’s when you have to roll back the parameters.”

The natural approach

One way to take the formal edge off an investigation is to portray interviewees in their familiar surroundings, which can often betray as much about an individual as what they choose to say. “When I go into people’s houses, I’m fascinated to see what they have on their walls; what they wear; how they invite you in,” Broomfield explains. “It’s how we still usually meet people, the Internet notwithstanding, and it uses people’s everyday vocabulary to tell a story. It’s when things stop, and people start fiddling around with their lenses that it’s no longer a social meeting. I want the interviews to be like conversations.”

“I think one of the most amazing things about film is that in long takes, you just see things change,” he continues. “If you’re reporting in a different medium, say, in a newspaper, you report the conclusion. But in film, you see the process of people making decisions or coming to a conclusion. No other medium has that ability: you can show things in real time.”

A journey of discovery

“I move from one interview to the next with questions I have got from the first, building a detailed and elaborate story,” Broomfield says of his technique. “The mark of a great work of fiction is the same as a documentary – that it does not work by numbers. I think it’s a more compelling way to tell a story that hasn’t got an inherent structure,” he proposes. “Biggie and Tupac, for example, is like a detective story, and a lot of its elements are disparate. Without a thought track connecting them, I don’t think the audience would follow it. The easiest thing is to use what’s there – one’s own journey, one’s own perception.”

“The thing I always ask myself at the end of all these films is, do they represent my experience of what really happened when I was making them. And do I believe what I’m putting across. I think what I’m doing is portraying the world and its substance: I’m not necessarily looking for objective truth, but trying to convey to an audience what it’s like to interact with these people, and get the truth out of them.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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