Real Cinema

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“It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to put together something as accurate as possible,” is the Broomfield manifesto. Following 2006’s acclaimed Ghosts, he’s taken his experiments with ‘real cinema’ to a new level with Battle for Haditha – digging as deeply into the principles of filmmaking as he does the universal issues surrounding this symbolic episode.

“It’s great fun to play around with style,” Broomfield tells me, citing Day for Night – François Truffaut’s much-lauded film about making a film – as a creative influence. Certainly since the journalistic frustrations of 1988’s aptly-titled Driving Me Crazy, he’s carved a name for himself as a figurehead for what pigeonhole enthusiasts call les nouvelles egotistes: a growing breed of doc-makers who are themselves central to the action, together with the likes of Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

Given their deviation from this trademark approach, it’s all-too-tempting to pin up his two most recent films as the start of a new chapter in his work. Both are dramatic interpretations of controversial situations, with no bobbing boom or frantic chase in sight; unlike much of his personality-driven back-catalogue to-date, both stories pivot largely on a specific series of events and the complex repercussions for the many characters involved.

But like his intriguing Anglo-American drawl, or one of his elusive heckled interviewees of past films, Broomfield’s not that easy to box in: for him, both style and substance should remain organic. “I think about one project at a time; I never seem to have a problem finding my next film,” he insists. “I’m not one of these people with a list.”

The latest episode to pique his inquisitive instinct was the death of 24 Iraqi civilians in the small town of Haditha on 19 November 2005, in the aftermath of a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed a young marine riding in convoy. Whilst initial reports from the US military claimed that the deaths were a direct result of the blast and a subsequent gunfight with hostile insurgents, Iraqi witnesses told a very different story – five unarmed men in a taxi shot dead as they approached the scene, and 19 more killed in three nearby houses in an act of violent retribution over the following hours.

It was an amateur video clearly showing the bodies of women and children shot in their homes, passed to an Iraqi human-rights organisation and then to Time magazine, that laced the affair with doubt. It identified flaws in the marines’ statement, prompting a formal inquiry – although the initial conclusion was that it was collateral damage, things soon spiraled into a full criminal investigation, with several marines on trial for unpremeditated murder. For Broomfield, this was motivation enough to cement the blood-soaked incident as an example.

“I’ve researched lots of subjects that I haven’t followed through,” he admits. “When you’ve got to be with them for a year, a year-and-a-half, you might as well do something that is complicated enough, or has enough mystery to keep you going. I don’t like going into films knowing what the outcome will be: often it’s the discovery that’s exciting; changing your mind; meeting people with sides that you’d never imagined before. That’s what makes it worthwhile and fun.”

It’s a compelling approach: filmmaker both directing the action and being swept up in it. “It’s all to do with storytelling. Any way you can tell the story better so it’s more real, more entertaining, more contemporary, is great to play around with,” is Broomfield’s take. In the case of Battle for Haditha, this involved building a framework from what few indisputable facts were available – and letting the cast improvise the rest.

As with Ghosts – for which the painstaking research process including hiring Chinese students to pose as illegal immigrant workers, and posing as an Afrikaner worker himself to film the results with a hidden camera in his glasses – finding the right cast to carry the film was crucial. Not necessarily just for their acting skills, but for their genuine deep-rooted emotions, experiences and insider-knowledge that could steer both the general atmosphere and finer details more accurately than any stubborn director with a top-down vision.

Understandably, it feels like a documentary-maker’s approach to drama: letting the action unfold as naturalistically as possible. At first he considered going the full distance: tracking down the marines who had lived and breathed the sweat, smoke and blood of Haditha, and asking them to re-enact the events of 19th November 2005. But in the flesh, as he told The Times, they were “fucked up, much too jittery. Some couldn’t keep still when we were talking to them.”

One of the most shocking elements during this initial research period was the marines’ “distressing and vulgar” sense of humour; arguably a coping mechanism to detach them from the shocking things they’d seen and done, but something Broomfield had to fight through, alongside the jitters and the tranquilliser damage, to understand what they were really about.

Unable to work with those directly connected with Haditha – and with the trial just getting under way – the production favoured a more conventional call-out to casting agents with military connections, tapping into servicemen who had recently returned from active duty to keep that emotional resonance without jeopardising the whole project.

The highlight of their nine-month casting call was unearthing 22-year-old ex-marine and aspiring actor Elliot Ruiz, who at 17 had been the youngest solider deployed to Iraq, and had already had his personal story dramatised in a Pulitzer-nominated play. Corporal Ramirez wasn’t any easy first lead role for Ruiz: dredging up all manner of demons, it was a turbulent process that came to a head in an on-screen breakdown with an uncomfortable dose of realism. Iraqi civilians, many of whom had lost loved ones in the conflict, were also persuaded to lend their stories to the film as part of the predominantly amateur cast.

Despite responding to one symbolic episode, this fresh ammunition for the anti-war canon has an intentionally timeless quality. “Things like Haditha happen in any conflict, any war, anywhere,” reasons Broomfield. “The stuff that we filmed after the IED goes off is all based on reports: that’s all accurate, what happened in those houses. But I don’t want this to be seen as a forensic film. Haditha is a symbolic crime, but not such a rarity that it deserves to be looked at in isolation.”

While it may seem that the collective lens of the world’s media has been on Iraq since those first volleys were fired, it’s the other side’s perspective that has been conspicuously absent thus far: and this is the edge Haditha brings to the public debate.

“It’s a film about the language of war, and the common humanity that people share,” he declares. “In any conflict there are different points of view; it’s rarely good and evil. But most journalists have been stuck in the Green Zone throughout, and genuine Iraqi viewpoints are few and far between.”

Accordingly, the research also included flying to Aman to meet civilian survivors of the massacre – “who were there on the day, and knew the people who were killed” – plus spending a week with insurgents who had been directly involved with Haditha, and quizzing the journalist from Time magazine who first broke the story into public consciousness. The next step was securing government reports and witness statements to build as accurate a picture as possible, from multiple sides.

Iraqi witnesses and insiders in the marines told the same story: that the killings were indiscriminate as a knee-jerk reaction to their colleague’s death. Most shocking of all were the protocols he found through conversations with marines: “Their standard operating procedure rules are so fucking hardcore. If a house is described as ‘hostile’, then you just kill everyone in the house. It doesn’t matter if it contains two-year-olds or the elderly.”

But while he admits starting the project with some bias against the marines, meeting them in the flesh and realising that these were poverty-stricken kids with little or no education, thousands of miles from home in a conflict they didn’t understand, muddied the waters somewhat: “The deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realised it was to take a side. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers. I hope people will feel that judgment should be passed on the war itself, the architects of the war, and the future of the war. These are just poor bastards who got caught up in it.”

“Everyone has some kind of blinkered view, and it’s interesting that in some of the cinema discussions after the film, the two main camps realised just how blinkered they are. That’s what happens in war – but most traditional war films tend to be black and white, good and bad.”

Broomfield’s already made it clear that beyond the factual framework, the cast should make the piece their own, so I ask how he sees his own role in the production – particularly in still relatively unfamiliar dramatic territory.

“I enable people to deliver their performances in as relaxed a way as possible, and as real a way as possible,” he responds, after a short pause and a contemplative hmm. “It’s creating an environment that people can work in that makes them feel alright to be themselves, particularly if you’re working with non-actors. They shouldn’t be embarrassed: you want them for who they are.”

Of course, dramatic interpretation or not, Battle for Haditha has a grounding in fact – and was released while the trial was still in progress – so surely directorial control was crucial in places? “When dealing with specific milestones in the report, details from a legal document, we had to control people pretty tightly,” he confirms. “They couldn’t say whatever they wanted in those situations.”

“We worked from a pretty rigid structure of the story, but I was often steered by what they had to contribute: ‘We wouldn’t do it this way; we’d do it this way.’ I let them use their own language, being mindful that I didn’t want them acting being a marine: I wanted them being themselves. In a sense, they’re the experts – you don’t need one of those experts standing by.”

Given their deeply personal roots in the conflict, and intimate connections with its victims, surely the cast had their own agendas, even if the director endeavoured to avoid one of his own? “The film is all about agendas,” is the simple answer. “The marines, the insurgents, the people who get caught between those two forces, all have their own rationale for what they do. It’s about presenting those three agendas as accurately as possible, to an audience who probably has their own preconceptions.”

“Showing the film around, an Iraqi audience is very pro insurgents – would they even have taken money to do what they did? They see them as patriots. An American audience is always much more defensive about the marines.”

Three strands of narrative bind the film together, representing these three viewpoints: the pair of newly-recruited insurgents paid to plant the IED, the marines who seek revenge for its fatal detonation, and the civilians who are cut down indiscriminately as a result – several of whom see the bomb being planted in their quiet neighbourhood and choose to keep quiet.

While the brutality of the wider insurgency comes across, the two that plant the bomb are nervous and inexperienced, acting clumsily in the name of patriotism – but tellingly manage to flee the scene unharmed as gunfire erupts. The marines are brutal, dehumanised and reduced to killing machines by fear and rage, but ultimately emerge as pawns in a game much larger than themselves, endorsed by orders from above and crippled by remorse.

Iraqi civilian life is sketched out in various short episodes – a party to celebrate a circumcision, a boy playing with a goat, a family going to market – but this third group is finally crushed from both sides, with nowhere to turn. Crucially for Broomfield, all involved re-creating elements of their own lives, not acting several stages removed from it.

Some 15 years before Ghosts, his first venture into directing drama – 1989’s glossy Hollywood fare Diamond Skulls – he found overwhelming as a process, and readily admits to being embarrassed by the end result. Does mindless escapism and detachment from reality just not appeal?

“All forms of storytelling are interesting; I just happen to have grown up in a tradition of documentaries,” he reflects. “But I don’t like celebrity and all that goes with it: I enjoy getting to know normal people and their lives. For me, it’s about combining that with telling a structured story in an accessible way.”

Unlike that self-confessed blip on Broomfield’s CV, both Ghosts and Battle for Haditha shun the studio lights and contrived repetition of Hollywood to reveal something deeper about those involved.

“These are not pseudo actors; they’re real people who are being themselves,” he asserts. “That means you have to shoot in a different way; in real environments. You can’t shoot them on a set ’cause then they have to act, and they have no training in acting; they don’t know that the fuck they’re doing.”

Based in Jordan – Iraq was clearly too dangerous – the cast and crew lived as a community. “I had to create a barracks for the marines to live in, and the Iraqis were living in houses. If you’re shooting reverse angles, lighting the bejesus out of something and having hundreds of people standing around the set, you’ve got to have actors. It’s very, very difficult.”

By way of example, the bathroom in which Ruiz breaks down – purging himself of all those years of pent up anguish – doesn’t open up into a world of runners, tracks and dollies. It’s the actual bathroom used by the cast and crew. Maintaining the ‘real cinema’ approach are very long cuts. For the heart-rending mourning scene, the camera rolled for 40 minutes straight – no-one was going to ask the genuinely distressed women to go one more time for luck.

“I think the greatest thing that film has is the ability to describe real time,” argues Broomfield. “I don’t like lots of cuts: it’s really interesting to see a conversation, for example, or how long it takes for an argument to develop, rather than just cutting to an argument. We’re used to seeing things in real time, and cinema has the exciting ability to do that.”

“I grew up with anthropological, observational films, where the most interesting thing was seeing a long conversation between two guys in some weird language with subtitles. You get a sense of their rhythm, how they do things, what their humour’s like – no other art-form can do that.”

For Haditha he picked up countless tricks from special effects supervisor David Harris, including how to set up action shots to keep a lot of movement in the camera. “Certain things, particularly action, are also much more involving in real time than if you cut to the effect all the time,” he concludes. “It’s much more threatening if the human eye sees it as being real.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 9 of 4Talent magazine

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

Filming the Void

In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were the first to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Unfortunately, as immortalised in Simpson’s international bestseller Touching the Void, on the descent they had one or two hitches. Nick Carson considers how the author’s harrowing journey was translated from book to BAFTA-winning film.

“We’re probably the only two people who don’t get it,” Joe Simpson muses to a capacity crowd at the Guardian Hay Festival 2004. “It’s our car crash, so we don’t put an interpretation onto it and try to imagine what it was like. We see it with different eyes, and don’t feel like anyone else does when they see the film.”

The two climbers’ experiences in Peru have gained worldwide recognition since the publication of the book in 1998, and Joe’s four-day journey back to base camp on a shattered leg, after his partner was forced to cut the rope binding them together, far transcends the genre of mountaineering. “Eighty-five percent of readers aren’t climbers,” he points out. “It’s not about climbing; it’s about dying alone, loneliness, pain, anguish and ultimately friendship. People appropriate stories for themselves.”

Touching a nerve

It was never intended as a film, Joe is keen to point out, but how much closer could a visual medium get to dramatising his ordeal? “I was frustrated at the end of the book, as I was nowhere near articulating how bad it was,” he confesses. “I couldn’t remember the real pain, so couldn’t find the words to explain what it felt like. But then most people have never been at twenty thousand feet, so it’s like a lie, but not, if that makes sense,” he goes on. “To be honest, my fellow climbers telling me it’s authentic means more to me than the BAFTA.”

Watching his experience unfold visually for the first time had quite an impact. “I was convinced they would make a pig’s ear of it, but it was better than I ever imagined,” he reveals. “Seeing the crevasse again was quite disturbing: it didn’t feel like it did at the time, but it reminded me of it,” he explains. “I can’t actually feel the pain but I get the sense of it, one stage removed.”

Re-living the ordeal

The final cut of the film may have awakened painful memories, but the return to Siula Grande during the filming process was many times worse. “Going back to Peru made me anxious: it wasn’t a cathartic experience,” Joe admits. “When I was writing the book it became someone else’s story, but back in Peru, surrounded by cameras, it became very real again. When I got back I was told I was having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – seventeen years late. It was criminally irresponsible to send us out there,” he adds wryly.

Re-living his ordeal en-situ prised open a long-dormant wound that words on a page could only gloss over by comparison. “The traumatic experience was burned into my neural pathways,” he continues. “I could see the circle of mountain peaks where I thought I was going to die, and suddenly it wasn’t a story anymore. Kevin [McDonald, the director] and his cronies were little dots far away, and I genuinely felt that they would disappear and that the book, film and last seventeen years hadn’t happened: I was back there, and the neural pathways opened up again.”

Bearing the tedium

Nevertheless, Joe’s rugged spirit of adventure often didn’t gel too well with the ethos of the industry, and the torturous flashbacks were fleeting moments in an otherwise gruelling filming schedule. “For an actor, making a film is about as interesting as watching paint dry,” he groans. “They spend four-and-a-half hours fiddling with the camera for every five minutes filming.”

Despite his respect for the directorial talent he was working with, Joe remains singularly unimpressed with Kevin McDonald’s grasp of mountaineering. “He’s a London-based arty guy, who made an amazing film but still has no idea what makes climbers tick,” he admits. “He was endangering our lives at one point, because he didn’t appreciate how dangerous it was. Simon had to sort him out,” he laughs. The combination of Kevin’s artistic talent and Joe’s first-hand experience clearly made for a much more rounded result.

Unexpected success

The international acclaim has quite genuinely hit Joe by surprise, having written the book primarily to defend his friend from a tide of criticism. “I never thought critically of Simon, in fact I’m immensely in his debt,” he explains. “People forgot that he put his life on the line for me, and only remembered the cutting of the rope.”

“If I thought a million people would read it and a film would be made I never would have written it,” Joe confesses. “I didn’t seek success or notoriety; I certainly never expected to front the film. It makes you very vulnerable, as you have no control over how you look once it goes into the editing room. To be honest, I was relieved that I didn’t look a complete prat.”

Setting the record straight

So what can the film offer that the book couldn’t? One major asset is for the benefit of those mountaineering virgins that make up the majority of the audience. “The camera pulling back over a vast mountain range gives a real sense of scale,” Joe points out. “A book can’t depict the inside of a crevasse if the reader had never seen one; it’s reliant on the imagination. The film helps non-climbers to visualise the experience.”

Another bonus, he adds, is that the psychologically realistic documentary style of Touching the Void may bring advocates of popular mountaineering blockbusters such as Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit down to earth. From the lips of a man who’s been there and back, they are absolute drivel. “You just can’t have sex at twenty thousand feet,” he concludes with a grin.

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