Son of the photographer Maurice Broomfield and one of the most influential documentary filmmakers of his generation, Nick Broomfield talks to Gordon MacDonald about his work and its relationship to documentary practice and to photography.
GM. Your early films, Who Cares? or Behind the Rent Strike, seem to be heavily influenced by your father, Maurice Broomfield, who was an industrial photographer, in that they show a shared sympathy with the working class, and socialist values.
NB. I think that’s true. That was certainly my starting point and Who Cares especially is shot like a series of stills. Through him I was able to visit that world which I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and it certainly made me very curious about places like Liverpool or Cardiff. These were industrial areas where I felt there was much more of a sense of community or much more of an integrated culture than the world I’d grown up in. I think that was very much the starting point for the films – it was a subject area I was much more curious about than my own upbringing.
When I was at university I studied sociology and politics and I read books like Willmott and Young’s Family and Kinship in East London and Madeline Kerr’s book People of Ship Street, about a community in Cardiff. These were studies of working class culture. At that time I think there was almost a community on a street-by-street level, parents and grandparents and kids all growing up on the same street. I was kind of envious of that in a way and there seemed to be a lot of fun in those streets, they were obviously very deprived but people were constantly interacting and dependant upon each other in a way that we don’t get in many other areas of our society now. To that extent I think the world we live in is much less interesting.
GM. So Who Cares? is a lamentation of the breakdown of these relationships in working class terraced communities?
NB. Yes, and the advent of a much more mobile society, of people moving around; also the break up of the extended family. It was a big change from this primitive early industrial society that was broken up in the 60s and 70s in this country.
GM. Who Cares? has a very photographic style, in fact it starts off with a series of stills with voiceover and it moves into film. Is that your photography?
NB. Yes, that’s my photography.
GM. Looking at the way it’s shot, it feels a bit like the Mass Observation images made in the 1940s.
NB. I think that’s how Liverpool was, or even Cardiff. The street corner shop, that old kind of newsagent, that whole society of the wash-house, all those things were coming to an end while I was there. I suppose a place like Liverpool was ten to fifteen years behind London at the time, Cardiff too, so they were in a kind of time warp. Also, the film is shot in black and white and, as everyone was just moving over from black and white to colour, I could scrounged old black and white short ends that people didn’t want anymore. I think aesthetically I prefer black and white to colour; I didn’t want to shoot in colour anyway.
GM. Why was that?
NB. Because my stills photography was all black and white and I’d been brought up as a black and white photographer. I think on the whole I prefer black and white as a medium. I like the shapes and I think some things are more interestingly represented in black and white. I like the grain structure too.
GM. There is something in the colour of Behind the Rent Strike. Something so reminiscent of that time – those browns – it was kind of grubby.
NB. Very grubby. In fact the film I made after film school, Juvenile Liaisons, which I shot in Blackburn and was banned for a number of years, had those oranges and browns. Just the way people had their hair, the colours, the wallpapers were so unbelievably awful, I mean they were so powerful…
GM. So complicated.
NB. So complicated. There is a whole culture in those colours and I suppose, though you don’t realise at the time, you are documenting history.
GM. I wanted to ask you how that feels. There is a thirty-five year legacy of your work now that has become a valuable historical document. Some of the films, like Who Cares? and Behind the Rent Strike, seem so far removed from the present, they are almost impossible to believe. There are children playing in piles of rubble and glass.
NB. There are people standing on the street and playing dice on the corner. It’s a culture that’s gone now.
GM. The early films have become archival pieces, although some of what you were saying at the time is still relevant.
NB. I think as a filmmaker you are very much a historian too and in the very privileged position of being able to document a culture, a reality and an order of life that instantly becomes a record and a reference point. That’s why it’s so important that it stands up by itself as a piece of work too.
GM. As you mature as a filmmaker do you start to be conscious of that when you are making a film.
NB. You have a sense that you are documenting icons, that it is a cultural reference point, which is exciting. One of the filmmakers who I most admire is Frederick Wiseman, who made films mainly in institutions in the US. If I wanted to go and understand the history of America in the last fifty years I’d go and look at his films as a very good starting point. I think that what our period of time has, over and above any other period of history, is film and it tells you so much more than a history book. It can tell you about accent, it can tell you about the way people talk, it can tell you about…
GM. Complicated wallpapers?
NB. Yes, all those little, very human things that history books can’t tell you.
GM. I’d like to talk about some of the earlier films that were made with Joan Churchill. Films like Chicken Ranch and Soldier Girls. There was a distinct change in style. Was it the budget or the introduction of Joan Churchill, the cinematographer?
NB. They weren’t particularly high budget. I think Soldier Girls we made for something like £30,000 which is very cheap. I think the big change was working with Joan who was just in a different league to me in terms of shooting.
GM. As a technical camera person?
NB. Yes, I think I was just a stills photographer and I liked things to be pretty much set up. I had quite a formal aesthetic. Film on the whole, particularly Cinéma Vérité which was what we were working in, is not about having a formal aesthetic, it’s about anything but having a formal aesthetic. It’s about being able to be totally spontaneous and being totally technically equipped to catch that moment. It’s a very difficult kind of shooting because no-one will repeat anything and at the same time you can give enormous emotional impact by actually following what’s happening in the room rather than just recording it. You almost need a sixth sense to know who it is in a room, who is actually propelling the conversation or the tension. Joan had that ability and I was always more the director who was interested in the bigger picture.
GM. In the films Chicken Ranch and Soldier Girls you leave gaps, which seems to force the subjects to fill them in. There seem to be points where people start interviewing each other spontaneously. You know it’s not forced by direction, it seems sometimes like it’s forced by necessity, that they need to start talking and that they need to start interviewing each other.
NB. I think that that is one of the pitfalls of Cinéma Vérité. I think, because everyone involved knows what’s happening, because they’ve all been there for ages, it’s only the audience that are newcomers, not the people who are part of the situation. Sometimes, as a filmmaker, you are having to fill in backwards which is difficult and why I think it’s kind of unsatisfactory. It’s a form that I think sometimes doesn’t always give you all the information you need.
GM. Someone like Sergeant Abing, one of the main protagonists in Soldier Girls, almost feels in parts as if he’s in a Hollywood movie. Obviously the situation is real but he seems to almost be playing to the stereotype of what’s expected of him by the camera.
NB. I don’t know if you saw, we did an update interview with him. I remember he said the army said to him, ‘but couldn’t you have toned it down a bit’ and he said, ‘I did, I really did’. I think that’s just what a Drill Sergeant is. It’s a sort of showmanship, it’s just a way of being.
GM. But I think maybe that gets emphasised and pushed to the foreground when there’s a camera and by the very process of filming.
NB. That’s the whole strength of film because you’re showing it often in a darkened room to a bunch of people who aren’t doing anything but looking at it, which is an unusual way of seeing. It’s more like an opera by the time it’s on the screen. Fred Wiseman calls his films ‘reality fictions’. They are a work of fiction but he’s using reality to get there and I think in some ways that’s a very accurate description but I would say, that they are certainly representative of what goes on.
GM. Do you think then that documentary is the wrong word?
NB. I think the term has changed with our technical abilities really. There have been other terms like Observationist Cinema and Cinéma Vérité. I think all the terms become their own worst enemy because then people pounce on them. There are different ways of telling stories and there are different ways of informing people about different situations, I suppose sometimes they are more successful than others. Sometimes a different approach is required.
GM. One scene in Soldier Girls that I found incredibly powerful was Private Alves loosing control. To me, in this kind of documentary fiction, it was one punctuating moment of reality. It looks like she really lost her mind.
NB. She did and later she said she didn’t and that she’d put it all on. But I don’t believe that.
GM. In the film it is the least controlled that anybody acts and it was a kind of punctuation point. Was it edited in like that? Calculated?
NB. Yes, where you place those kinds of scenes is obviously important. Clearly, if you’d put that scene right at the beginning it would have been wrong. The scene triggered people leaving, so it was a turning point in the film really.
GM. Also in this film there is a point where I think Private Johnson is leaving and she leans around the camera and kisses Joan Churchill and then leans over to you. The camera then turns around and for maybe two seconds, in bleached-out light, we see Nick Broomfield with a sound boom. It seems like a seminal moment – where you became part of that film – and subsequently part of all your films.
NB. Yes, a break through the invisible line. I’m sure we spent quite a lot of time wondering whether we should put it in or not. Although I felt that Solder Girls allowed itself to be a classic Cinéma Vérité film, because it follows this training programme and there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, at the same time it was born out of our relationship with the people we filmed. There are scenes with Abing, at the end of the film, where he’s talking about not being able to love anyone anymore, in which he is clearly divulging things because of our relationship with him.
GM. Does he understand the power of the medium when he is doing that?
NB. He got into a lot of trouble with the film. I don’t think he cared. He was proud of what he believed in and he wasn’t going to apologise or hold back for anybody. That’s just how he’s lived his life I think.
GM. You seem to have a list of people who are fair game.
NB. Yes. Terre Blanche, Margaret Thatcher. I’ve never done Tony Blair and George Bush but they would certainly be fair game.
GM. What makes them fair game for you?
NB. I think they are people who have done enough harm to other people that anything goes.
GM. But also you seem to pick on people who would feel that they were powerful enough to overcome the medium and whoever came at them.
NB. I think it’s essential that they can hold their own, otherwise you are doing what they do, bully people, which is something I don’t want to do. With Margaret Thatcher I was conscious of what I was doing. My only criticism of that film is that I didn’t really ‘do her in’ enough, she got off much too lightly and I should have gone on longer. Terre Blanche had it coming to him and Courtney Love really is her own worst enemy. Had I really had a vendetta against Courtney – and she really isn’t worth having a vendetta against – I could have made a different film. There’s a lot of stuff that I know that I didn’t bother putting in to that film because it simply wasn’t germane.
GM. If you consider your films on Margaret Thatcher, Terre Blanche and even Biggie and Tupac, they have a political slant. Is that something you consciously do?
NB. I think films need to have a bigger political issue and it’s exactly why I make a film. If I can’t think of it in that dimension then I don’t do it.
GM. So you start off with a film like Biggie and Tupac to talk about institutional racism?
NB. Yes, originally I wanted to make a film about the Los Angeles Police Department. It’s such a racist city and I’d lived there for so long. When it was discovered that a couple of these cops were accused of the hit on Biggie Small there was a vehicle to make a political film that would also be quite popular. That’s why I did it.
GM. But the way that it comes across in your films is that they simply grow from an initial interest in the person or the incident.
NB. I think you start with that but you know that you are going to end up on a bigger dimension and you have to get there. You don’t know all of the stages, you just know where you want to go. I knew with the Kurt and Courtney story that it was going to be about freedom of speech and the freedom of the press but I didn’t know it was going to be quite so blatant.
GM. In the film Tracking Down Maggie, there’s a point in the film where you get the itinerary for her book-signing tour in America. You turn up at her hairdresser’s appointment and it seems very much like you’ve given up on the idea of talking to Thatcher at that point. It was obviously going to infuriate her and her security staff.
NB. I think that was true. We’d been following her for quite a long time and all that time we’d been trying to arrange actually doing an interview with her. Probably by this time we were four or five weeks in to filming and we weren’t getting anywhere so it had to go that way. I think there’s a point in the filming where you know it’s going to go that way, like getting up on the stage with Courtney. You clearly mark who you are and what you are doing. They are points of no return and you have to up the ante.
GM. It seems at that point that it becomes a film about the difficulty of making this film and the frustration of it.
NB. I think inherent in any situation are the tools by which you are able to make the story. Sometimes those tools get more and more desperate. Someone like Margaret Thatcher has made it virtually impossible to make a story about her that she doesn’t control and so it was a question of trying to create the means by which to tell a story.
GM. This is hard for me to say, as Thatcher blighted my early life, but with the use of documentary footage and stills in Tracking Down Maggie what you choose to show are only the very darkest points of her administration, like the sinking of the Belgrano and the violent confrontations of the miners strike.
NB. Well I think that we are very clearly subjective. I have chosen a very subjective way of telling the story which gets around any notion of impartiality or balance. My films are obviously very one-sided if you like, they are about my journey. In my attempt to tell Thatcher’s story I think it’s clear that I don’t like her and I think she’s a selfish, Old Testament authoritarian who has very little respect for anyone but there are a lot of people who would obviously completely disagree with that.
GM. The idea of a subjective look, of tracking down somebody, almost hunting somebody, seems to go against the perceived idea of what a documentary is.
NB. Oh yes I think all my films do. I think it very much offends some people’s notions of what documentary should be about, a kind of old school notion of what documentary is and how it should be done. I remember that some documentary filmmakers that I respected were horrified that I interviewed Eugene Terre Blanche and all I wanted to do was tell him about my cup of tea, and thought that I threw the opportunity to interview him away. I actually just wanted to reveal his inner emotions and how he behaved – his foul temper and his feelings of self-importance – and I didn’t want to give him a political platform. That wasn’t the film I wanted to make and they didn’t understand that, which is fine. I think it’s healthy to change the boundaries and get people to look in a different direction and to challenge their notions of what things are about.
GM. So what would you call it? It’s not documentary, it’s not Cinéma Vérité, it’s…?
NB. I think they are all like separate journeys and separate adventures into different territories, the films are a record of that so they are very subjective. They are very impressionistic of a given moment of time – they are not pretending to be a final statement. It’s not like I’ve done mountains of research or I’ve gone out to prove a particular thesis. It’s much more that, over that period of time, I experienced it and this is my report. It’s almost like a report from the front.
GM. There’s a lot of looking out of the car windscreen in your films. It gives the idea of traveling and of a journey but they also seem like very static, still points in the films, when nothing very much is happening. What are they used for?
NB. A lot of traditional documentaries just have talking heads next to each other, which doesn’t take into account where these people live, how they live, what their houses are like, what the landscape is like around them. All these things inform and affect the people that are in your film and I always find them incredibly informative. I think it’s because you’re making a portrait of something too. Those traveling shots I think are very accurate, they reflect people’s taste.
GM. When you turn up your microphone is on, the camera is on and it’s straight into action. This gives immediacy and an edge of reality to the film.
NB. Yes exactly, and that’s exactly why it’s there. It’s not like the audience has missed out on something or there’s some kind of collusion or that you’ve tidied their room up, or that you’ve taken time to light it properly. If you were going to knock on this guy’s door this is probably how it would be. I think that’s exciting. It’s kind of like having a diary too with all those first second observations.
GM. In the films you seem to wear a uniform of an MA1 jacket, a white shirt or t-shirt and jeans. Coupled with the microphone boom – and the fact that you are struggling around with a big recording device – it all adds up to make you look like quite a benign character – less threatening than a man in a suit with a microphone with CNN written around it.
NB. Definitely, yes.
GM. It’s almost like you’ve accidentally turned up sometimes, or you’re trying something out to see how it goes. Is that all intentional?
NB. I suppose. Actually, in terms of the continuity of the film, it’s great too because it’s not like on that day you were wearing a red shirt and you can’t intercut it with another scene. I remember regretting very much being moved from a cinematographer to dealing with sound at the time because I enjoyed being behind the camera and I thought being the sound recordist was rather demeaning, but you do have the advantage of seeing more and of being the person that people relate to. It was making the best of a number of factors really. I cannot take any credit for it being some great master design.
GM. I also wanted to ask you about the kind of junk aesthetic, like an accidental camera angle caused by a scuffle that leaves the camera pointing at the floor. These seem to be a recurring motif in the films.
NB. It’s about taking the audience through that experience and those are all part of it.
GM. But you are choosing to edit them in as punctuation marks?
NB. Yes I think so and it’s also about losing control, which I think is important. I think a lot of making a film is essentially about losing control and trying to get control.
GM. In your second film about Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, there’s a point at the end when you’re looking through a hatch and she asks you to stop filming. You put the camera down but it is still running and you are still recording. She admits that she’s lying about being guilty and that the murders were committed in self-defence. Incredibly powerful stuff, but how do you justify the continued filming? It is a private discussion that is obviously only occurring because you have established a friendship with this incredibly vulnerable woman.
NB. Well the truth is that by the time the film came out she had been executed and she was already dead. The reason she didn’t want us to film was because she believed that information might stop her from being executed and she was so desperate to die at that point. It was the important question that I think the audience was trying to work out – did she knowingly kill these people? Is she lying about the self-defence? I think if anything it endears an audience to her far more and it gives you a measure of her desperation. Had I felt that the information was really going to substantially change what she wanted – which was to die – I wouldn’t have used it. But I feel, with hindsight, it was fine to put it in.
GM. Was this because the point of her secrecy was no longer an issue?
NB. Yes, because she was dead.
GM. Morally, it’s difficult though isn’t it?
NB. Yes it’s a difficult one. Ultimately only the filmmaker can really decide what they’re going to do because there aren’t any rules about what you do. You have to do something that you can excuse with your own conscience – that you can feel good about.