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2003 Outstanding Achievement Award: Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield seems happiest wielding his boom mike like a weapon, chasing down his sometimes highly uncooperative interviewees with his own brand of in-your-face filmmaking. His ambush tactics and controversial subject matter have made for some lively, dramatic and even outrageous cinema. Brash, uncompromising, he is unafraid to tackle questions that have no clear answers. From the beginning, Broomfield has been no stranger to controversy. His first film, the short Who Cares (1971), shot with a borrowed camera and some leftover film stock, was used as evidence in a royal commission on slum clearing and re-housing. At Britain’s National Film School, he made Proud to be British (1973) and Behind the Rent Strike (1979), both of which take a critical stance against Britain’s class system.

In the early ‘80s, Broomfield made such films as Tattooed Tears (1982), a look at life in a California youth prison; Soldier Girls (1981), which examines the strain of basic training (and which also won Britain’s Robert Flaherty Award for Best Feature Documentary); and Chicken Ranch (1983), an exposé of the legal sex trade in Nevada.

With Driving Me Crazy (1988), however, Broomfield’s work evolved from politically-minded cinema vérité into a style that can now only be called Broomfieldian. While documenting Austrian impresario Andre Heller’s musical spectacular Body and Soul, he eschews his former self-effacing style, putting himself in front of the camera in a desperate attempt to save the film. The result is seminal in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Broomfield’s work since then has ostensibly investigated characters who remain, for the most part, absent from the screen. Films like Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), Tracking Down Maggie (1994), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Kurt and Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac* (2002) rely on Broomfield’s own conspicuous presence to guide us through the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies unspooling from his camera, showing us that the process of digging for the truth is far from an objective process.

His essential genius stems from his willingness to take risks, both with the medium and with his own person. Some of the best moments in his work come when he immerses himself in a situation where the outcome is uncertain, confrontational, even dangerous. His passion is evident in these scenes.

Some of his harsher critics have called attention to the lack of ‘factual’ content in his work, but his sometimes casual, tabloid-like attitude towards ‘evidence’ is not naiveté. Rather than digging for some definitive answer, the tone he takes with his subjects both reflects and mocks the truth-spinning that has become commonplace in our instantons sound bite, infotainment culture. Thus, he puts into his films what lesser directors would leave on the cutting room floor: hidden camera footage, casual yet incriminating asides, failed interview attempts, testimonials from less than trustworthy sources.

Broomfield allows us to see and hear everyone’s opinions (including his own), no matter how farfetched or blasphemous. Sometimes his subjects are so eager to speak they don’t need and prodding from Broomfield; his camera simply lets them hang themselves. Take The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1991), a look at neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. The film could be a comedy if what was coming out of Terre’Blanche’s mouth wasn’t so frightening.

Broomfield’s work is at times humorous, at times shocking, but always thought-provoking. His ultimate subject is the underbelly of modern celebrity culture; it’s ugly, seedy, sometimes even monstrous, but altogether human. Above all, it’s thoroughly engaging and wonderous cinema.

Glen W. Norton Writer and film critic

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