Perhaps because their European origins give them outsider status, Werner Herzog and Nick Broomfield are the most incisive, intriguing filmmakers producing documentaries about American life today. They couldn’t be more different. Herzog, in Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss, is the brooding Teuton, obsessed with violence, meaning, self-deception, and obsession itself, utilizing state-of-the-art digital cinema equipment. Broomfield, on the other hand, is the wide-eyed British doofus, dragging along a boom mike and a tiny crew as he profiles and chronicles the same qualities of American life as Herzog. Often he looks like he’s slept in his clothes, asking obvious questions and getting seemingly obvious answers.
But there’s more to Broomfield’s documentaries than this; his films often end on the same dark, brooding notes as Herzog’s. His technique permits his subjects (among them Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos in two films — Aileen Wuoronos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer — and “Hollywood madam” Heidi Fleiss) to reveal far more of themselves than they think, unveiling contradiction and conflict. The same is true of the themes of his films, which emerge only after long engagements with his interview subjects. His 2002 Biggie and Tupac is one of the most insightful documentaries about race, poverty, and the American justice system of the past 15 years, and its insights are only slowly discovered: the contrast of the urban ghettos of Brooklyn and the suburban ghettos of Los Angeles; the culture of celebrity and the means by which it exploits racial hatreds and divisions; the entertainment industry. Through all of these landscapes Broomfield shambles along, his outsider status inviting his subjects to be perhaps more open with him than with an American documentarian.
Broomfield started his career as a Frederick Wiseman acolyte, but as he continued to experience difficulties in making these films he decided to integrate these difficulties into the structure of the films themselves. And so his style was born: an ordinary individual, seeking the truth about things he’s read about in the newspapers, doggedly dragging around cameras and tape recorders in an attempt to document the truth itself — a truth which remains elusive, for those who may possess it are not ready to give it up, whether they’re lying to themselves or lying to Broomfield or, in most cases, want money for it.
The explicitly subjective documentary techniques of both Herzog and Broomfield open them to the charge of self-serving solipsism, a charge occasionally justified. Broomfield’s Sarah Palin: You Betcha! especially suffers from this, but mainly because Broomfield chose such an easy satirical target. But this is a rare failing; more often than not, the insights into American culture that Broomfield’s films reveal say far more about the stresses of the culture than about Broomfield.
The questions of subjectivity and personal perspective have been a part of the aesthetics documentary film ever since the Lumiere brothers in the 1890s made a conscious decision as to where to place their camera as an oncoming train approached. Broomfield, like Wiseman and Herzog, is a political filmmaker, especially as his recent “fiction” film Battle for Haditha, set in wartime Iraq, attests. But the politics emerge organically from the subjects of his films rather than as an explicit ideology; more contemplation than confrontation.
It is a shame that Broomfield wasn’t around to document l’affaire Daisey, especially since he directed the film version of Spalding Gray’s monologue Monster in a Box and, more controversially, a documentary about the making of one of Lily Tomlin’s one-person shows. Both Broomfield and Daisey have been held to account for manipulating time and explicit fact in their non-fiction work; Broomfield, as revealed in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, had to do so in a courtroom; Daisey, who may be charged with a tendency to self-importance, has achieved a certain status as a celebrity, which has colored the reception of his monologues. And Daisey is very much an American artist through and through in the tradition of Twain, Tomlin, and Gray.
Many of Broomfield’s documentaries are available via Netflix streaming, and Jason Wood’s book Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons is a very good profile of the filmmaker, covering Broomfield’s career through 2005. For an example of Broomfield in the hot seat himself, this BBC interview from 2008 has him defending his aesthetics and style in the Wuoronos documentaries; it makes for fascinating viewing.