"I think it helps a film to be a bit of a provocateur," says Nick Broomfield.
In the first few minutes of Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Broomfield's documentary exploration of the early '90s' most notorious six-day wonder, the British filmmaker arrives in Los Angeles with no clear idea of how to reach his subject, no scheduled interview (Heidi had been arrested a few hours before she was supposed to meet Broomfield) and no more insight into the case than a regular viewer of Hard Copy. Stranded in the hills of Los Angeles without a lead, Broomfield is reduced to peering into the windows of Fleiss' former home and photographing her now-empty swimming pool while imagining the parties that were once held on the site. For more than a few minutes, Broomfield appears to have painted himself and the entire self-reflexive method of documentary filmmaking into a corner, but by the time he finally gets to speak with an unexpectedly demure Fleiss, he's turned his investigation -- and many of the traditional notions of documentary filmmaking in general -- inside out.
The apparent subjects of Broomfield's films -- accused murderers, white supremacists and semicelebrities like Fleiss and Kurt Cobain -- become the center of a struggle between the filmmaker and his film, as if he must provoke, beg or wrestle with them to find out what his film is really about. In Kurt & Courtney, he maps out a kind of obstacle course in which Courtney Love's real or imagined past intersects her refusal to cooperate with Broomfield in the present. Though the filmmaker maintains an air of modesty, he inevitably takes on a variety of roles, from crusading reporter to wounded suitor, but because he's never quite central to the subjects (Fleiss and Love don't seem to realize that he's become part of their stories), he inevitably has to let any notion of a definitive Truth slip away. The films end ambiguously, usually raising two new questions for every old one they resolve. In fact, because many of the subjects he's followed are ongoing -- alleged killer Aileen Wuornos was recently granted a retrial, and South African politician Eugene Terre'Blanche (of The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife) is currently in jail for beating up a gas-station attendant -- Broomfield has suggested that future DVD releases of his films will allow him to update the stories.
For the first half of Broomfield's career (he's made 19 films, the first in 1973), he respected the traditional rules of cinéma vérité, staying behind the camera as an observer. While recording the behind-the-scenes drama of a particularly chaotic theatrical production in the 1988 film Driving Me Crazy, Broomfield realized that the clearest way to show the difficulty of capturing the story was to appear in front of the camera and let his struggle become part of the film itself. Never looking back, he has made his combined roles as filmmaker, investigator, tourist and confidant a central part of the drama. (When I ask him whether his onscreen naïveté was an act, much as Michael Moore portrays himself as an average citizen in Roger & Me, Broomfield jokes, "Being goofy just comes naturally to me.") His films thrive on the scenes that many documentary filmmakers would be quick to cut -- people refusing to speak, begging him to turn his camera off or even shamelessly trying to influence Broomfield with everything from false compliments to outright flirting. In the age of the media event, where the lines between newsmakers and celebrities have blurred and journalists must stand in line behind agents and TV producers to get to a story, Broomfield's films expose the clumsy hands that work behind the curtains of our information-drenched world.
The four films included in Webster University's miniretrospective of Broomfield's work -- as part of the film series Independent Visions -- provide both a crash course in his uniquely subjective, passive-aggressive approach to filmmaking and a breezy tour through a handful of the most infamous pop-culture/media trouble zones of the last decade. Broomfield's investigative forays lead him into a world where nearly everyone has a grudge to bear and a story to tell -- for a price. Bartering for facts could almost be described as a recurring subplot in the films, so shamelessly do Broomfield's interviewees beg, wheedle or otherwise negotiate a price for their testimony. Whereas many journalists find the practice of paying for interviews appalling, Broomfield avidly ex-plores the unabashed greed of his participants. "I obviously thought it was something worth talking about, and that's why I show it," he explains. "It's in the title of Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. It's all about the selling of something that's marketable. With Heidi Fleiss, I wanted to show that these people value themselves -- what they think they're worth. Even the chief of police. Los Angeles is a town where everyone has a value."
Broomfield listens to every account, no matter how biased or improbable, often with greater interest in the crossfire of emotions than in the stories themselves. He insists, both on- and offscreen, that he approaches each film with no preconceptions. "You're basically doing an investigation," he says. "It would be a weakness to go in with a preconception. You can actually change direction, which makes it more interesting. You're taking the audience on a journey, and you're going to take them to the end. You don't want to stop people from talking or be intimidating." At times he seems puzzled, even disturbed, by the things he hears, gradually developing sympathy for the people at the center of such angry tempests. Broomfield wants to know what makes a seemingly ordinary woman become a prostitute or a killer (or both); why nice average people join a racist hate group; how decent kids like Heidi Fleiss and Kurt Cobain fall in with the likes of pimps, drug dealers, pornographers and Courtney Love.
Some would argue that Broomfield listens too well, that his decision to provide a forum for the unfiltered testimony of publicity seekers and conspiracy theorists is an irresponsible breach of ethics, reducing journalistic integrity to an ear for gossip. What Broomfield's critics miss is that his films are often less concerned with the validity of what people say than with its context, the atmosphere of hatred and paranoia that his subjects nourish. As witty as they are revealing, these films sneak beneath the surface of our tabloid-obsessed culture and lay bare its basest inner workings. Few documentary films dig as deep or expose as much as Broomfield's provocative journeys.
Independent Visions: Nick Broomfield plays at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium May 4-7: Kurt & Courtney, 7 p.m. May 4, with Broomfield introducing and discussing his work; Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, 8:30 p.m. May 5; Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 8:30 p.m. May 6; and The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife, 8 p.m. May 7. For more information, call 314-968-7487.