Thursday, 28 November 2013

Nick Broomfield: a career on screen

by Jian Farhoumand. 
Sussex-based director Nick Broomfield with Bugle editor Jian Farhoumand
Nick Broomfield, 65, is known for documentaries that are both highbrow and humorous. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Broomfield has carved a niche for himself as a globe-trotting, celebrity-hunting adventurer. His brazen boldness in the face of adversity often gets a laugh, even if it doesn’t quite get him an interview with his intended target.
Broomfield’s work boasts a broad range of dramatis personae including Margaret Thatcher, Eugene Terre Blanche, Courtney Love, Tupac Shakur and Sarah Palin. A notable idiosyncrasy of Broomfield’s oeuvre is his mock-casual insistence on appearing on-screen himself (however accidental and nonchalant these cameos might look). His subtle humour, mixed with a sort of faux-boyish innocence, often disarms his prey into making surprisingly off-guard admissions. (Something for which Louis Theroux and other recent imitators owe credit.)
Broomfield claims that his cameos were originally borne of accidents and necessity, especially in situations where his potential subjects proved so elusive that his thwarted attempts at filming them became the actual stories on screen. This is especially the case in Tracking Down Maggie (1994), Kurt and Courtney (1998) and Sarah Palin: You Betcha (2011), in which Broomfield is often out-foxed by prey whom he had clearly underestimated.
Broomfield is shrewder than he appears, however, and embraces his comi-cameo identity with relish. This is clear from the series of Volkswagen commercials (1999) in which he wanders around like a lost Clouseau, brandishing trademark boom and tape recorder, in an effort to solve a vehicular mystery. 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. His mere presence on screen now implies erudition and intrigue.
Despite his humour, Broomfield is a serious filmmaker whose work affects actual, genuine change. His film about Palin is credited with having thwarted her plans for a 2012 US presidential bid and is regarded as a reason why the Republican Party refused to endorse her to run against Obama. Broomfield’s film about Kurt Kobain’s death reveals oversights in police work conducted after the singer’s presumed suicide, and heavily implies that Courtney Love was somehow involved.
Broomfield has made two films about a notorious American serial killer whose execution, he suggests, might have been misguided. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003) both cite many examples of serious negligence by numerous figures of authority including Wuornos’ own attorney and even the state itself. Broomfield ultimately suggests that the state put to death a rape victim who had decided to plead guilty and face execution rather than suffer the political circus around her.
I was once lucky enough to meet Nick Broomfield at a Q&A screening of Sarah Palin: You Betcha at the Duke of York Picture House, Brighton. I suggested that documentaries are often regarded as serious but that his are somehow surprisingly funny, and asked if he regarded humour as an important tool for conveying a serious message. 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. He was referring to his Hobbit-like mission through the snowy state to track down Palin, which resulted in an entertaining Chaplin-esque comedy of errors, replete with director slipping around on icy streets and being ejected from buildings by security staff.
Broomfield said of the making of the film: “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.”
Broomfield has received the California State Bar Award for contribution to legal reform, and been awarded several honorary doctorates as well as the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Documentary. His films are informative, insightful and gripping. I look forward to the next one.

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