BY Austin Collings in Frieze | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons

Jason Wood (Faber and Faber, London, 2005)

BY Austin Collings in Frieze | 12 MAY 05

In Nick Broomfield’s documentary features you meet people that would make even the most ghastly inventions of fiction recoil. This talent for access has seen him confront a rogues’ gallery of notables, including South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche (The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, 1991), the violently influential Suge Knight, co-founder of Hip-Hop’s most brutally unsparing label Death Row Records (Biggie and Tupac, 2002), and America’s ‘first’ female serial killer, Aileen Wournos (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, 2003). In his own words, he has ‘… chosen subjects that are very off-limits’.
Like Michael Moore and Louis Theroux – two documentarists who have successfully appropriated his openly disorganized style – Broomfield began his career in television in the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Back then, however, influenced by Ken Loach’s realist approach to TV drama in the 1960s, he stayed behind the camera, shooting starkly titled features about social injustice such as Who Cares (1971) and Behind the Rent Strike (1979), in a strict vérité style. Unusually for Broomfield, he himself is absent. The untrustworthy people, however, still drive the narrative.
It was during the filming of the financially fraught Driving Me Crazy (1988), a feature about the planning and rehearsing of an elaborate stage show, that he chanced on a technique that set the template for his subsequent career. ‘I thought that maybe I could make a film about not just the show and the development of the show, but about all the disagreements and the characters and the disputes […] My dilemma, my search for what the story was, would of course be in there too.’
In this series of collected interviews Broomfield’s frank answers achieve a level of sincerity that goes some way to mollifying his critics who, ultimately, view him as little more than a blundering egomaniac, as he obscures the facts in hope of reaching a half-cocked conclusion. ‘Real truth is a subjective thing, and films are a subjective statement. They have to be’, he opines, echoing the recently deceased Hunter S. Thompson, another maverick who brashly twisted the conventions of investigative journalism. In his defence you could argue that the real subject of his films is what he endures while shooting them. Dogged as he is by lack of funding, and up against the consistent hypocrisy of studio-heads who dishonestly espouse the laws of freedom of speech, the fact that he still manages to get his work released surely dulls any critic’s bite.