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Broomfield, Nick (1948-)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Broomfield, Nick (1948-)

Nick Broomfield was born in London in 1948. He made his first film, Who Cares? (1971), with financial aid from the British Film Institute while studying politics and law at Essex University. Its subject is a close-knit but threatened working class community in Liverpool, and the influence of Willmott and Young's classic study Family and Kinship in East London is clear, but even in this early work Broomfield's characteristic sense of personal involvement is already apparent; as he himself put it: "everything at university was at a very conceptual, analytical level, and I felt a need to look at things in a more immediate way."

After Essex, Broomfield joined the National Film School at Beaconsfield, where he made Proud to Be British (1973), in which the town's inhabitants speak their minds on what it means to be British (or, rather, English). The already mischievous Broomfield obviously revelled in the opportunity to record such open displays of Blimpishness, and clearly annoyed the Buckinghamshire Advertiser, which disapprovingly noted that "it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a film about private schooling, the Church and the Conservative party made by a left-wing, pro-comprehensive atheist." While there he also made the Grierson Award-winning Behind the Rent Strike (1974), which features some of the people from Who Cares? As Broomfield points out: "it was an answer to the views of Britain expressed in the previous film, and the two are meant to be played together."

In 1976, Broomfield made the first of several films with the American filmmaker Joan Churchill, whom he'd met at the National Film School and who had already made a name for herself in the US with documentaries such as The American Family (1973). Their films are less overtly confrontational than Broomfield's solo works, belonging more to the tradition of direct or observational cinema in the Frederick Wiseman mode.

Of these, one of the most interesting, and certainly the most controversial, is the BFI-funded Juvenile Liaison (1975), which had its roots in Behind the Rent Strike. This follows two Lancashire police officers in their dealings with young people in trouble with the law. An extremely disturbing picture of harsh and oppressive police treatment of children accused of minor offences, it became a censorship cause celebre when the BFI, pressured by the police, withdrew it from distribution and refused to allow it to be shown on television, thus causing its Production Board to resign en masse. Broomfield later revisited the subject, without the accompanying controversy, in Juvenile Liaison 2 (1990).

Partly because they found Britain "such a hypocritical and repressive country in terms of media freedom", Broomfield and Churchill made a number of films in the US until their relationship, both working and personal, broke up in the mid 1980s, although they were later to work together again. After this watershed, Broomfield developed a less observational, more up-front style, not so much fly on the wall as fly in the soup, which can first be seen to great effect in Driving Me Crazy (1988), a film about the making of a film of a black stage musical. This is really the first of his works which illustrates - hilariously - his dictum that:

if you're making a film, it's more honest to make your presence felt than to hang back furtively on the other side of the room, because no-one really benefits from that. That approach really is, to use the dread word, voyeuristic. You're there with all your equipment, but pretending you're not there.

The reason why he uses a more participatory approach, he has explained, is because "what's important is the interaction between the filmmakers and those being filmed, and that the audience is aware of that interaction so they can make decisions of their own."

Daringly, Broomfield also used the same technique in his film on the South African neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terreblanche, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife (1991). One of his finest works, it demonstrates how effective his apparently chaotic and eccentric shooting methods can be; by concentrating on what appear to be the inessentials, approaching his subject obliquely and, apparently, missing it altogether, the faux-naif Broomfield strikes to the heart of the matter - in this case Neanderthal attitudes towards race.

Following this he tried the same technique with Lady Thatcher in Tracking Down Maggie (1994); needless to say, he does no such thing, and the film is thus less successful than its predecessor. Nonetheless, by repeatedly showing the remarkable extent to which Thatcher was sealed off from both the public and 'unauthorised' media by her creepy entourage of minders, Broomfield effectively evoked the aura of unaccountability, and delusions of regal grandeur, which increasingly enveloped the lady.

In 1989 Broomfield made his first, and so far only, fictional feature film, Diamond Skulls. In spite of a promisingly acerbic storyline (based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan), it somehow fails to deliver the damning portrait of aristocratic sleaze, thuggery and hypocrisy that one might have expected from Broomfield. Returning to documentary mode and his now trademark (if increasingly imitated) in-your-face style, Broomfield concentrated mainly on American subjects (although he also put it to use in a number of advertisements for Volkswagen). In particular he began to focus on 'celebrities' and on the media circus that surrounds and indeed constructs them.

This is particularly the case in Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), but it's also there in Heidi Fleiss - Hollywood Madam (1995), Biggie and Tupac (2002), and Kurt and Courtney (1998). This last also raises the question of censorship once again, via Courtney Love and her lawyers' increasingly determined efforts to stop the film in its tracks. These give rise to one of the film's most characteristic moments, in which Broomfield interrupts an award-giving ceremony for Love hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which champions free speech, in order to protest at her efforts to silence him and others. He is rapidly evicted.

Like the work of Molly Dineen and Jon Ronson, Broomfield's later films are fascinating examples of what Stella Bruzzi calls the 'performative documentary'. This, by openly acknowledging that the intrusion of the filmmaker into the situation being filmed inevitably affects and alters that situation, underlines the fact that the documentary is itself a mode of representation as opposed to unmediated reality and thus foregrounds the construction and artificiality of even the non-fiction film. This is not to imply that such documentaries are not concerned with getting at 'the truth', but, rather, that the truth emerges from the encounter between the film-makers, subjects and spectators.

Bruzzi, Stella, New Documentary: a Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2000).
Nahra, Carol, 'Anti-Celebrity Provocateur', Dox, Dec. 1998, pp. 10-11.
Pearson, Alison, 'The Fly in the Ointment', Independent on Sunday (Review section), 15 May 1994, pp. 18-19.
Petley, Julian, 'From Alienation & Nick Broomfield', Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1989, p. 352.
Wise, Damon, 'Boom Raider', Sight and Sound, May 2002, pp. 16-18.

Julian Petley, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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

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

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Who Cares (1971)Who Cares (1971)

Early Nick Broomfield doc about clearing Liverpool's slums

Thumbnail image of Leader, his Driver and the Driver's Wife, The (1991)Leader, his Driver and the Driver's Wife, The (1991)

Nick Broomfield documentary classic about South African neo-Nazis

Thumbnail image of Tracking Down Maggie (1994)Tracking Down Maggie (1994)

Hilarious account of Nick Broomfield's attempts to interview the former PM

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