Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons

director: Nick Broomfield

532 minutes (18) 2004 widescreen ratio 16:9 Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart

With documentaries never more popular than they are now, the time is right for Nick Broomfield to get the mainstream recognition he so richly deserves. A veteran English documentary maker, Broomfield is best know for his recent films, exploring the relationships between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, and (most recently) the first female serial killer to be executed by America, Eileen Wuornos.

This boxed set picks out some of his earlier, less well-known work, stretching from the early 1980s through to the mid-1990s. It’s a fascinating cross-section of his work, showing how it’s evolved and become stronger as, ironically, he’s become more a part of it.

The first disc, Chicken Ranch is the best example of this. Made in the early 1980s, it follows the employees of the Chicken Ranch, a legalised brothel in Nevada. Showing the staff, prostitutes and clients, the film is an unflinching look at an unusual world and one that isn’t afraid to show the darker side of it. The most memorable scene occurs when a drunken client tries to barter a girl down from her normal price. What follows is a hugely uneasy ten minutes as he gradually leaves in a mostly good-natured way. The threat of violence is present throughout the scene, the tension is palpable and the relief even more so when he finally leaves.

What’s missing from the film though, is Broomfield himself. For a man who has become famous for being part of the films he makes, he’s completely absent here and as a result you never quite connect with the film or the people it’s portraying. The personal relationships are as fascinating as any other of his films but without Broomfield to anchor them, it’s difficult to become involved.

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Fetishes, the second disc in the set couldn’t be more different. Made in the 1990s, it follows a month in the life of Pandora’s Box, an upmarket S&M dungeon in the middle of New York. Once again, Broomfield covers the intersection between sex and business but in this case does so in a far more personal way. The head of the dungeon, Mistress Raven, who he insists on calling ‘Betty’ throughout, is clearly fascinated by him and Broomfield enjoys an uneasy, yet good-natured relationship with the staff. Neither he nor his film ever judges what they do and it’s clear that all the women who work there respond to that. Broomfield is even allowed to interview them in their homes as well as film sessions with clients. It’s this good humour in fact that gives the film a great deal of its impact. The sequence dealing with a professional submissive’s session at the dungeon is deeply unsettling and made all the more so by the absolutely unfettered way that Broomfield films it. It’s neatly counterbalanced by the film’s final moments as, on his last day of shooting there, Broomfield is set upon by the entire staff. In fact, the sight of Broomfield halfway up a dungeon door with the various mistresses climbing after him and Mistress Raven yelling: “This is bigger than both of us Nick!” is quite possibly the highlight of the entire set.

Heidi Fleiss, the third disc, again covers similar ground but is the first one to really show Broomfield’s work in its most familiar form. As a filmmaker, he’s better on the hunt than he is when he’s caught what he wants, and this is never truer than here. Spending most of the film trying to get an interview out of Heidi gives Broomfield an opportunity to delve into her world, uncovering a far darker story than either of the previous two films.

The entire film is based around the polar opposites of Heidi’s former madame and her possibly former boyfriend. As the court case drags on, Broomfield finds himself bouncing between the two of them and in the middle of a Dickensian world of innuendo and half-truth. It becomes clear early on that Heidi Fleiss is probably the tip of a very large iceberg, becomes even clear that neither Madame Alex or Ivan, Heidi’s former boyfriend are remotely stable or safe but Broomfield keeps coming, looking for all the world like an amiable, slightly confused private eye. There are tantalising hints of a conspiracy that goes as high as the mayor but it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on as everybody Broomfield talks to is probably lying.

The film culminates in an interview with Heidi Fleiss herself and here Broomfield is given an opportunity to show off his other real strength. He’s a phenomenal one-on-one interviewer and the responses he gets from Fleiss are completely honest, unforced and at times desperately sad. Ultimately, the film becomes a story not just about her but the world that created and abandoned her and as a result is the darkest piece in this set.

Soldier Girls, the fourth movie is another early piece and again one in which Broomfield takes a backseat. However, unlike Chicken Ranch it’s an engrossing movie following the women of Charlie Company as they train to be frontline US soldiers. Here, Broomfield takes a backseat to the real stars of the film, the women and the officers who train them.

Again, this is dark territory as those unwilling or unable to keep up are either washed out or quit. One of the most telling moments takes place when one private, on punishment detail already, is finally broken. Having dug a hole for several hours she finally loses it, screaming hysterically and swinging a shovel at her platoon commander’s head before being dragged off, still screaming. The exact moment where she can’t take anymore is captured on screen and its consequences are fascinating to watch. After quitting as a result of the incident, she’s transformed, becoming incredibly happy at the thought of going home.

The images that stay with you from Soldier Girls though are the points where the femininity of Charlie Company collides with their work. In particular, there’s a wonderful sequence at a dance which looks for all the world like a school disco for grown ups. Men and women in uniform, who have spent their days being taught how to kill are transformed into shy, awkward wallflowers and the affect is as comic as it is touching.

Tracking Down Maggie, the fifth disc and again a piece from the early 1990s is my personal favourite. Originally hired by Channel 4 to follow Lady Thatcher on her book tour and look at her son’s suspected arms deals, Broomfield quickly finds himself on the outside looking in. The former Prime Minister makes it very clear, without ever saying it, that Broomfield is not welcome and he, in turn, refuses to give up.

What follows is one part conspiracy theory, one part farce as Broomfield, still on the tour’s press list but unable to get any access tries to get an idea of what the former Prime Minister is really like. A visit to her hometown reveals an uneasy relationship with their most famous resident whilst school friends paint a picture of a young woman utterly dedicated to her father and with very little sense of humour. There’s an uneasy sense to this section of the film, a feeling that Broomfield is moving in areas no one particularly wants him to.

This becomes farce as the book tour moves to America. With Lady Thatcher’s press secretary refusing to return his calls, Broomfield resorts to guerrilla tactics and acquires a copy of Lady Thatcher’s daily schedule. The sequence where he and his crew are the only film crew covering a speech she’s delivering on an aircraft carrier and he approaches her only to see her vanish into the deck on an aircraft lift is disturbing, funny and deeply surreal.

Finally, the set is rounded off by what is arguably one of Broomfield’s best movies. The Leader, The Driver And His Wife follows Eugene Terre Blanche, the ill-fated leader of white supremacist movement the AWB in South Africa in the early 1990s. Again, Broomfield is on top form here with Terre Blanche refusing to take him seriously whilst remaining completely unaware of his own absurdity. He’s a repulsive figure, proudly touting the idea of race war and claiming a grand warrior heritage whilst utterly incapable of driving himself anywhere.

In fact, it’s his driver that Broomfield spends most of his time with. He’s clearly an intelligent but deeply troubled man and much of the film is concerned with what appears to be his rehabilitation as he gradually changes his views about the black population. Whether or not this is the case is never clear and it’s never certain whether he’s playing to the cameras or not, but he remains the heart of the film. A man too intelligent for his job trapped in a world too stupid for him to deal with.

Documenting Icons is a perfect choice for anyone who’s enjoying the current spate of documentaries. It’s hugely varied, immensely intelligent and often very funny. With Broomfield providing introductions for most of the discs, this is a fascinating look at a fascinating filmmaker and his work. Strongly recommended.