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Nick Broomfield: The Guardian Interview (1997)

On 'Fetishes', influences, and the fallout from 'Juvenile Liaison' and 'Soldier Girls'

Main image of Nick Broomfield: The Guardian Interview (1997)

Nick Broomfield was interviewed by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre on 4 July 1997.

1. Fetishes

NB: It really was more, I mean it was a decision I did make in the editing room to concentrate more on the fetishes 'cause, you know, I shot obviously a mass of film and I could've done something that was more like a kind of, you know, more like, for example, what I did, you know, with Joan in Soldier Girls, which was, you know, you follow particular characters and particular stories. But then it wouldn't have been anything to do with the fetishes, it would've been a completely different film with, you know, different storylines going through it. And I deliberately actually didn't do that film because it seemed that at this point in time, you know, audiences don't probably know that much about the particular fetishes and, you know, and that kind of thing, which is why I did make the film that I did make.

Audience question: But you did actually follow the fetishists?

NB: Well, a little bit, yeah. A little bit. Because I think, I think it was very important that an audience could identify with particular individuals and characters, rather than just having a sort of completely academic look at, you know, these particular things because I think, you know, there's a lot of preconceptions and a lot of attitudes that you need to get through in a way with a film like this if you want to try and make it accessible to a wider audience, and I felt that the mistresses were very likeable characters so I used them to that extent, I guess.

Audience question: Do you think that the mistresses enjoyed it more than the clients?

NB: Well, I don't think the mistresses on the whole were there necessarily for enjoyment. I think they, I mean obviously the clients, I'm not sure 'enjoyment' is necessarily the right word, but I felt that the mistresses were obviously the group that I got to know much better because they were there all the time whereas the clients were there for an hour or two hours and we would just have to sort of literally grab them on the way in or the way out.

Audience question: How amenable were they to actually setting things up for you, to performing for you?

NB: The clients?

Audience question: No, the mistresses. I mean would they give you a second whip shot?

NB: A second whip shot. Well, I think that, you know, the main thing first of all was just to get the mistresses to want to be in a film, which actually did take quite a long time. I think they were very, you know, sceptical, and that obviously there'd been a lot of other films made that were made you know, for, you know, either by people in the scene, or there'd been other films made by, I don't know, Playboy or Penthouse, not that I'd want to run them down in any way but, you know, they didn't necessarily like the films, or they felt they were ripped off in some way or the films were stupid. You know, they didn't want us to be doing a sort of porno film so, you know, that did take a while to get through but then once five or six of them agreed I guess, you know, they were able to tell their slaves or clients that they should be in a film, particularly, you know, so it was a bit like, it was a bit like dealing actually with the American army when we dealt with them, which is, you follow your chain of command.

2. Juvenile Liaison

DM: Who else has influenced you as a documentarist?

NB: Well, certainly, you know, when I started I think I was very influenced by, you know, Fred Wiseman and by Penny Baker and, you know, Robert Leacock. And in a sense, you know, working with Joan Churchill, she very much was a part of that whole movement and, you know, shot with an incredible fluency that I certainly - 'Cause I'd shot before that point in time myself, and that in itself opened up, you know, other possibilities of making films. So, I guess, you know, initially I came from that kind of background sort of cinema verité background.

DM: It seemed to me, when you started, when you did, I think actually the first film I ever saw, I don't think it was The Rent Strike, the one in Liverpool, but I think it was Juvenile Liaison, which cause a fearful furore, and we all thought, 'Here is a young, political filmmaker from Britain,' you know, 'who is causing a stir,' and of course the row over Juvenile Liaison hit all the public prints, didn't it? There was a great row with the BFI [British Film Institute] and with the police and God knows who else, and we all thought of you as a political filmmaker. You're not such a political filmmaker now.

NB: Well, I think that, you know, that was also in a different, a very different time., you know, it was the sort of time of the three-day week and I think it was a much more overtly political time. I think all the issues were much more divided in a way than now. I mean now it's very hard to tell, you know, what a Labour Party is or what, where something starts and where something stops. I think things were much more polarised then, and I think, you know, films obviously reflect the politics of the time and -

DM: And also the influence of Joan Churchill perhaps? Or maybe not? I don't know.

NB: I don't, I mean I don't think so. I mean, I think I think Joan's influence was more to open up a whole range of, you know, making a much more fluent kind of film. I think my films up to that point were, you know, much more conceptual and plodding in that they didn't have that sort of fluency or the ability to record fairly complicated situations.

DM: Has anybody here seen Juvenile Liaisons by the way? Just a few. Could you just briefly say what is was about and what the struggle was? 'Cause it did certainly cause headlines.

NB: Well, it was a film about a scheme that the police ran in the north of England, Lancashire, called, which was the Juvenile Liaison scheme, which was a scheme where schools and parents could call the police in to deal with, you know, children who were having problems at school or whatever, or, you know, kids like Glen that you saw with a cowboy suit, who, you know, would be, you know. The idea was, I guess, if you terrified or frightened a child that maybe that would prevent them going on to commit worse offences or whatever because the shock would, you know, put them -

DM: That was before the 'short, sharp shock'.

NB: Yeah.

DM: Some time before then.

NB: But the police weren't , well, they weren't particularly, I think they were, you know, very well intentioned, but they weren't trained for this particular job. They had the standard police training and so some of the results were very odd, you know, like the clip that you saw. And I think over and above that, the film was also a portrait of the kind of very, of a sort of break down of families and their reliance on the police and a very sort of paternalistic -

DM: And so the police objected to it, when you?

NB: Sorry, yeah. Actually what happened was, another film that I'd done at film school, Rent Strike, was shown and there was a short section in there of the same organisation working, the Juvenile Liasion bureau, and it's at that point that they started objecting. And the British Film Institute had put the money up to make Juvenile Liaison and I think unfortunately, you know, if it had been a regular TV network, they would've told the police to get stuffed and they would've just transmitted the film but, you know, being a very um, you know -

DM: Bureaucratic organisation?

NB: Yeah, or maybe it was the, sort of, worst effect of being very liberal at that time. That, you know, the British Film Institute wanted to debate the issue and go into the aesthetics and the ethics of filmmaking, which ended up with the film being banned for, I don't know, 15 years or 20 years, never being shown at all, which was I guess one of the reasons we probably started making films in America at that point in time.

DM: What, simply because it was difficult to make them in England? It was much more difficult to make them in England?

NB: I think it was much more difficult than now, and it was very, very. Yeah, it was - And also I think there were a couple of other films that we had had permission for and there was such a big kerfuffle over it that we lost access on those films too. So it just wasn't a great time to be trying to do that kind of film here.

3. Exploitation and consequences

DM: You have been accused of actually doing scenes with people who don't actually know what your film is likely to be about. Not very sophisticated people, people who don't know what your motives are, and putting them on the screen and therefore exploiting them. That has been a criticism of your work. It may be wrong, it may not be, but you do see that if you go to Chicken Ranch and you talk to prostitutes and things like that, they might get the wrong idea of what you're actually trying to do, and you might be able to take the piss out of them or criticise them in a way which they wouldn't actually like if they knew what you were actually doing, you being more sophisticated person than some of your subjects, not all of your subjects - sometimes your subjects are more sophisticated than you - but very often you're more sophisticated than your subjects. Don't you feel there is a terrific risk in doing a controversial film like a brothel or an S&M [sado-masochism] house or a killer or something like that, that you might actually be unwittingly, or even wittingly, exploiting them?

NB: I think the only two films that I've really felt that about are, actually, funnily enough in Juvenile Liaison, I felt very bad for the sergeant and all the trouble that he got into afterwards. And in Soldier Girls likewise with the drill sergeant there, a guy called Sergeant Abing because I think, particularly when you're doing films with institutions like that, rather than address what the film is about, which I think naively we actually thought they were gonna do, they take it out on the particular individual and they penalise that person. Sergeant Ray for example, the guy in the cell, was given to us as being the best Juvenile Liaison officer in the entire scheme, you know, and he was very highly regarded. But once the film came out, he pretty much lost his career and his job and they didn't take any of the points really that the film was making at all. And, you know, which was very unsatisfactory really. I mean I thought that there would actually be a debate about the scheme and what the scheme should be about. And, you know, the British Film Institute turned it into a debate about film aesthetics, and the police more or less just finished Sergeant Ray's career off. And when we made Juvenile Liaison 2 I think to a certain extent we tried to deal with that point.

DM: It was going back to these boys and finding out how they'd grown up.

NB: And also to try and talk to Sergeant Ray who, you know, we did feel very bad about that. I mean certainly in making these films there are, you know, a certain number of ghosts and things that you pick up along the way and I would, you know, say Sergeant Ray and Sergeant Abing, I think, actually was an incredible drill sergeant, and he was very honest and I think he did exactly what he was supposed to do, and again, you know, got into terrible trouble with the army and Joan actually visited him, I think last year or the year before, and found out just what he'd been through. And apparently, you know, the Pentagon had sent people down there and he'd been put through a particular commission and had a terrible time. And so I think particularly those films within those institutions tend to really backfire on you and, you know, I do feel particularly bad about those. I don't really feel bad about the other films, I don't think, in the same way.

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Audio & Video Clips
1. Fetishes (3:14)
2. Juvenile Liaison (5:51)
3. Exploitation and consequences (3:59)
Broomfield, Nick (1948-)