Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed Metrodome’s region 2 release of the Nick Broomfield : Documenting Icons box-set. It may not be a definitive collection, but it does finally allow some of his earlier works onto DVD and also has a wealth of excellent extras.

Soldier Girls – Chicken Ranch – The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife – Tracking Down Maggie – Heidi Fleiss : Hollywood Madam – Fetishes

The title Metrodome have selected for this six-disc box-set, Nick Broomfield : Documenting Icons, is a sly one. Glance over it quickly and it could say Nick Broomfield : Documentary Icon, an alternative that may seem a bit much but also has a grain of truth. Certainly, I’m not sure that Metrodome would have been able to get away with this more grandiose moniker, although only time will tell as to whether Broomfield eventually finds a place alongside such indisputable icons John Grierson and Robert Flaherty. However, were the reconsideration to start this year then the six features included in this collection prove a worthy, if not perfect, starting point.

If the intentions of Metrodome were to provide a career encompassing retrospective then Documenting Icons doesn’t quite succeed. Broomfield’s on-screen persona that we know so well didn’t surface fully until 1988’s Driving Me Crazy despite his directorial debut, the short Who Cares, having been made in 1971. Yet neither of these touchstones are included, whilst of the pre-1988 works only two are represented. Moreover, the selection of films would appear to be governed not by factors of importance or indeed quality, but rather by subject matter. Sex is the key, what with the presence of Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss : Hollywood Madam and Chicken Ranch (about the notorious US brothel), plus there is Tracking Down Maggie (centring on Broomfield’s ill-fated attempts to gain an interview Margaret Thatcher) and Soldier Girls, both of which have immediately interesting themes. From this perspective the inclusion of The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife seems almost like a consolation; one of Broomfield’s finest to please the hardcore fans.

But then other factors intervene which mean that the situation isn’t quite so clear cut. Print availability and rights issues must be considered, and then there is the factor of Broomfield’s own personal involvement in the project whereby he has provided commentaries, introductions and even returned to past subjects for new interviews. And of course, if the director himself is happy with what is being offered then perhaps we should be too and so any misgivings quickly dissipate. As such, Documenting Icons should be considered not as a definitive article but rather as an opportunity to get more of Broomfield’s films on the market, especially some from the earlier part of his career.

Taking the films chronologically, we begin with 1980’s Soldier Girls in which Broomfield and co-director (and then regular collaborator) Joan Churchill focus on “the women of Charlie Company, Fort Gordon, Georgia”. The title is important here, especially the Girls part, for had this been a film about male soldiers there would by no Boys at the end, just Soldiers. However, as the film begins there appears to be little difference between what we are seeing and kind of activities that feature in any number of countless male populated fictional military training films: the recruits march, chant “Blood! Guts! Kill!”, and one of them is singled out for abuse from a hard-assed drill sergeant. Broomfield and Churchill do likewise, and pick up on certain individuals and through four very different female cadets allow Soldier Girls to build to a bigger picture of military life.

As noted, this was made a time before Broomfield played a central role in his own movies. Apart from one very brief exception we never even catch a glimpse of him or even his microphone boom for that matter. Yet, looking back at a time when his on-screen persona is now well known, especially his charm, it is impossible not to sense how he has used it to get so close to his subjects. We never get the impression that any other, more scabrous scenes are occurring behind closed doors, but that we are catching every unnerving second. Churchill constantly manages to get her camera up close and personal, and whilst Soldier Girls may be shot on grainy film stock using only available light, the details which are picked up are utterly unavoidable.

What’s surprising, however, is that Broomfield and Churchill don’t uncover the expected misogyny (although there are plenty of references to “crying and shit” and “emotional shit”), but rather a deeply ingrained system of bullying and victimisation. What makes this especially powerful is the decision to eschew talking heads or interviews of any kind. We simply see the events unfold without learning the motivations of those on either side of the power divide. Indeed, there is no context whatsoever; we can make guesses as to what the backgrounds are of these people or their reasons for enlisting (high IQs don’t appear to be commonplace), but they remain simply that. Tellingly, there are two occasions when the camera picks up on the girls discussing why they joined up – in both cases the answer is a simple “I don’t know”.

Equally disquieting is the fact that Soldier Girls possesses none of the black humour that would later become a Broomfield mainstay. The scene in which one of the privates – whom we later learn would leave before the completion of her training – is berated in a tiny room by three of her superiors for what feels like an age is wholly unnerving, all the more so because we quickly learn that there will be no light relief to fall back on. At the same time the background noise reveals that her fellow cadets are in the adjacent room clearly aware of what is going on, the perfect encapsulation of the fear that pervades these girls’ current existence. Indeed, Soldier Girls’ structure may not be as blatantly investigative as, say, Broomfield’s later Biggie and Tupac but the end results are just as damning.

Two years later and Broomfield was still in America and making Chicken Ranch for Central Television, a film which follows a similar path. The mirrored walls of its setting, “the most famous li’l old whorehouse in all of Texas”, may mean that Broomfield gets a little extra screen time, but once more this is an effort told in a cold, observational fashion. As with Soldier Girls, intertitles provide any bitesize pieces of additional information that the camera hasn’t been able to pick up on, and the level of intervention is kept to an absolute minimum (only in the final scene do we here Broomfield’s voice).

Yet whilst Chicken Ranch’s subject matter is as interesting as that of Soldier Girls, it lacks that film’s rigid structure. Basic training for the eponymous cadets lasted six weeks thereby allowing Broomfield and Churchill both starting and end points. For the girls who work at the Ranch, however, life goes on until you either fired or decide to move on. Certainly, Broomfield, here co-directing with Sandy Sissel, finds as many shocking and fascinating moments as in his previous work, but here they lack the required drive.

Of course, this could be, to some degree, the point, with our ennui equalling that of the girls. Indeed, the scene in which they meet Buck, a client unwilling to pay the Ranch’s prices, and channel onto him their hitherto concealed loathing of their “customers” is quite startling as it appears to have surfaced from nowhere. Likewise, the final scene in Walter, the Ranch’s owner, is revealed as far less benign figure that the one the camera has previously captured is just as unexpected, and therefore all the more powerful.

Part of the surprise in both cases is down to lack of context. As with Soldier Girls we are never quite sure as to why these people are here or why they have decided to work within the sex industry at all and are only able to pick up hints from here and there (nods in the direction of abusive relationships and previous employment in massage parlours). The result is that when a new characteristic is revealed, as with the case of Walter, we are constantly forced to reconsider our preconceptions. Where Chicken Ranch differs from the earlier piece, and indeed all of Broomfield’s previous films, is that the girls here are all, to a degree, putting on a performance making it difficult to ascertain how much of there supposed candidness is actually genuine. Are we to believe that these are the real people on screen, or are they simply playing another part?

It is tempting, therefore, to accuse Broomfield of having not produced a fuller picture. For all the insight we are left, as is often the case, with a number of unanswered questions. We do get to see the machinations of this close-knit, enclosed society (the Ranch is situation in the middle of the Nevada desert and the girls must work and live for three weeks straight at a time), but do we learn much of the larger sex industry in which they operate as Soldier Girls had done with the military? The simple answer is no, but then this does make Chicken Ranch of more interest when seen as a companion piece to both Heidi Fleiss : Hollywood Madam and Fetishes. Before we get to either feature, however, there are 1991’s The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife and Tracking Down Maggie from 1994 to deal with first.

Note the years and it quickly becomes apparent that the box-set contains a gap of almost a decade. There is no Lily Tomlin (1984), no Juvenile Liaison 2 and no Driving Me Crazy. It’s disappointing as it means we can’t quite trace the progress from the early Broomfield style to that of the better known one (so much so that Broomfield’s “brand” can now be used to advertise automobiles). That said, The Leader… does provide the pinnacle of gradual shift and as such could be viewed as the definitive Broomfield movie.

Unlike Soldier Girls and Chicken Ranch the focus here is much narrower, with Broomfield’s film concentrating on his attempts to interview Eugene Terre’Blanche. A member of the extra right-wing and leader of the AWB in South Africa, the white supremacist brings (along with Tracking Down Maggie) an element of the political to Documenting Icons, an aspect of Broomfield’s oeuvre that is often forgotten, especially as his earliest works are so rarely seen. Yet what sticks in the mind with The Leader… is just how funny it is. As Broomfield notes in his introduction (specially recorded for the box-set) the decision was made to never treat Terre’Blanche seriously despite his intimidating qualities. Instead he is constantly pestered by the director in order to get an interview, a protracted process- which Broomfield freely admits he saw as a “game” – that occupies most of the film’s duration.

Indeed, from this perspective The Leader… can be seen as the perfect encapsulation of Broomfield’s later policy of constructing his films out of the moments that other directors would leave on the cutting room floor. The interview proper doesn’t actually surface until around the 55 minute mark, yet the process of obtaining tells us far more about Terre’Blanche than any official meeting ever will. Moreover, in his attempts to gain access to “the leader”, Broomfield gets to meet with J.P., the titular driver, and his wife, and through them is able to gauge a fuller understanding of the political situation of hatred and fear in South Africa in the early nineties.

Given this situation, the humour of The Leader… obviously contains a bitter tang, but then it’s also important as it provides the film with a terrifically electric atmosphere. From the start, in the very first scene, cameraman Barry Ackroyd is attacked by one the AWB supporters. Its a climate that makes for an at times uneasy viewing experience, but also a compulsive one. Moreover, in the moments in which Broomfield shows up Terre’Blanche, the resulting humour becomes all the more pleasing.

Though thematically similar, Tracking Down Maggie offers no such rewards. Again Broomfield is in pursuit of an interview, this time with Lady Thatcher whilst she embarks on a book tour of the UK and US, but she’s a far more slippery customer than Terre’Blanche ever was. As such the film appears to be constantly shifting in front of us: on the one hand it’s an investigation into Thatcher’s past with interviews of childhood friends and ex-colleagues, on the other it’s about the “cat and mouse” games employed by Broomfield as he tries to negotiate with the various publicists, secret service agents and hired detectives. And then there is also the spectre raised by her son Mark Thatcher’s and his then current involvement with arms dealings in Malaysia. This latter element is also important as it adds a paranoid dimension to Broomfield’s trek across two countries, one in which, in his own words, he was “reduced to [a] paparazzi” in order to gain his footage.

Interestingly, this also sees the director making the rare move of having to adopt a large amount of archive material in order to bulk out his running time; the potted biography of Thatcher this allows for being in stark contrast to complete lack of information he is able to attain throughout the film. In this respect, however, Tracking Down Maggie becomes as much a piece about Broomfield as it does the eponymous ex-Prime Minister herself. Again and again we are treated to the sight of him sitting alone (save for his skeleton crew) whilst being brushed off during another wasted telephone call or gently smiling to himself as he is removed or turned away from yet another event.

And yet, despite the lack of “concrete” results, Tracking Down Maggie proves to be a fascinating, enthralling picture. Much like Louis Theroux’s more recent, but equally fruitless attempt to interview Michael Jackson (Theroux, of course, being one of Broomfield’s most obvious followers), what we get instead of this is a glimpse into the bizarre going ons that surround these most famous of public figures, ones that are perhaps just as telling as any “proper” interview would have been.

Broomfield’s luck didn’t appear to have changed much when he came to make his next feature, Heidi Fleiss : Hollywood Madam. Just as he was about to embark on production, his subject was arrested and jailed, and as he tells us in his opening voice-over it would be two months before he finally got to interview her. But somehow he had in fact managed to get himself in the right place at the right time. Despite the illegality of the subject matter (for those who aren’t aware Fleiss was at the time the most famous madam in Hollywood) and the fact that Fleiss’ trail for pandering was in progress, Broomfield finds himself with a film full of willing participants, and surprisingly frank ones at that – compare them to the girls in Chicken Ranch; there sex was always dealt with euphemistically and the trade had its own lingo, here the detail is unflinching.

Indeed, Heidi Fleiss : Hollywood Madam is a far sleazier, much more seedier work than Broomfield’s previous foray into the sex industry. As the film progresses he meets not only pimps and prostitutes, but also porn stars, police informants and corrupt cops. There’s a special place reserved, however, for Madam Alex and Ivan Nagy, respectively the woman who first taught Fleiss the ropes and now a superstitious, housebound has-been (who died shortly after filming), and the abusive ex-boyfriend and possible pimp. Without exception these are undoubtedly two of the most unsavoury characters to have ever gotten in front of Broomfield’s characters, and for that they help contribute to a fascinating, though deeply unsettling atmosphere.

This mood understandably means that Broomfield isn’t quite able to lend his picture with the now commonplace comic edge. There’s is one bizarre moment involving an American tabloid news crew, but otherwise this is almost thriller-like in its approach, complete with tension fuelled scoring, the deployment at one point of a surveillance camera, and covertly recorded telephone calls. But then, Broomfield’s film never quite turns out as his anticipated investigation into L.A.’s seedy underbelly, where it instead succeeds is in capturing the truly perverse relationship that existed between Fleiss and Nagy; the most shocking moment comes when we are “treated” to excerpt of one of their home movies, a truly skin crawling piece of footage.

A similar occurrence happens in Fetishes with the most revelatory footage coming from the CCTV camera that operates in Pandora’s Box, the New York S&M emporium where Broomfield spent two months filming. Though silent and monochromatic these piece, which interpolate Fetishes running time, work in much the same way as Soldier Girls and Chicken Ranch, i.e. they simply observe and are all the more fascinating for it.

Indeed, Fetishes is an intriguing place on which to conclude the box-set as combines the styles of both “early” and “late Broomfield”. Given that he is dealing with professional, and respected, dominatrixes, the director isn’t quite able to root as deeply as he had done with Aileen : The Selling of a Serial Killer, say, or Driving Me Crazy, and instead has to revert back to his previous approach on occasion and simply take a back seat. Moreover, the fact that HBO was commissioning the piece and had set the project in motion – and therefore that Broomfield was essentially a director-for-hire – you can’t help but get the impression that there is a certain unwillingness on his part to go quite as far as he had done on these, and other, previous ventures.

This is disappointing as Broomfield never achieves his chief aim of capturing Mistress Raven the owner of Pandora’s Box and apparently the most famous dominatrix on the east coast, giving a session. Of course, we only know this because he tells us during his voice-over, and as such had he reverted back fully to his old methods then perhaps Fetishes would have seemed less of a cop-out. Certainly, there are the requisite fascinating moments (particularly the section on “socio-political fetishes), but there is little insight when compared to, say, Kirby Dick’s more personal 1997 documentary Sick : The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.

Yet despite misgivings about the film itself, I do believe that it deserves a place in the box-set. Indeed, when taken as a whole the six films not only document a progression but also reveal some of the flaws inherent in Broomfield’s techniques. And whilst the set may not be a definitive record of the director’s career (there are many notable gaps, including the early seventies works, his own fiction film, Diamond Skulls, and some of the more conventional pieces he has directed over the years, amongst them Lily Tomlin and Monster in a Box), it does feel like a stronger collection for demonstrating both his strengths and weaknesses.

The Disc

All six films have been presented as originally intended which means ratios of 1.33:1 (most were initially made for television screenings) and either simple mono or stereo soundtracks. However, this also means grainy prints, some of which are damaged and all of which demonstrate their age. As such, Soldier Girls and Chicken Ranch come off the worst, whilst Fetishes undoubtedly looks the best if not perfect. However, it’s debatable as to how far a restoration job would go to improve their respective qualities. Given the nature of Broomfield’s mobile, handheld approach, plus the television financed budgets, he has never been in a position to adopt expensive equipment or film stock, and as such we shouldn’t, perhaps, be too despondent.

The real reason to replace the old VHS copies (all but Tracking Down Maggie having been previously available to the best of my knowledge), however, is not the picture quality, but the sheer wealth of extra features, amongst them commentaries and introductions by Broomfield, an hour-plus documentary and various other, equally welcome, titbits.

The documentary is perhaps the centrepiece of the bunch, a 70 minute “history reel” (as the menu titles it) in which Broomfield selects clips from various films spanning his entire career, each of which is accompanied by an introduction by the man himself. As such we get a number of clips from films not included on the box-set (including, pleasingly, such early efforts as Who Cares and Behind the Rent Strike) which go some way to giving Documenting Icons a little extra balance. Moreover, the clips are lengthy enough to give a genuine impression of the films as a whole, enough if they do perhaps prove too enticing, so much so that we undoubtedly miss their overall presence amongst the collection.

What this piece doesn’t provide, however, is much information about Broomfield himself, especially with regards to why he became a filmmaker and who were his influences, and the same can be said for the two commentaries. However, they do prove worthwhile as they focus intently on the films in question. For Chicken Ranch this means that Broomfield can now tell the behind the scenes stories that never made in onto the screen. As such we develop a greater feel for the relationships and tensions between the film’s subjects, resulting in a richer, more detailed overall picture. There’s also some fascinating information with regards to what happened to some of them once filming had finished: one of the girls, Mandy, was murdered two years later, whilst in an unrelated incident the Ranch’s owner died of a heart attack on the eve of a murder trial, two bodies having been discovered outside another of his brothels.

Owing to its different filmmaking approach, The Leader…’s commentary has to adopt a alternative tone. Once more we learn of what happened after filming – which included Broomfield receiving a number of death threats from the AWB – but there the director largely concentrates on providing a more detailed discussion of South Africa’s political climate at the time of its production. As such it is perhaps a less immediately enjoyable talk track than Chicken Ranch’s, although there is much to be said for the extra depth it provides.

Indeed, the remaining extras largely serve a similar purpose. For Soldier Girls and Chicken Ranch Broomfield catches up with some of his former subjects to discover that they now all have families, but are also undoubtedly scarred from their past experiences. The Leader… also includes a follow up in the form of a brief featurette that tells of the court case that followed the film’s release and saw Channel 4 unsuccessfully sued for libel, an event that – domino-style – would lead to Terre’Blanche’s downfall.

There’s also some additional footage for Tracking Down Maggie that is largely derived from news broadcasts and, much like The Leader…’s commentary, allows for an extra level of political context to be added for the film. Disappointingly, however, Fetishes comes without any bonus footage despite an extra 47 minutes of deleted scenes being available on Metrodome’s individually released ‘special edition’ of the film. It’s a cynical marketing move and one that leaves an unwanted aftertaste.

The final pieces are somewhat less important: a trailer reel containing promos for a number of Broomfield’s pictures, amongst them Kurt & Courtney and Biggie and Tupac as well as some of those which feature in the collection; and then there’s the series of commercials Broomfield made for Volkswagen in 2000, ones that saw him branded in some circles as a sell out.

As with each of the films, none of the extra features come with English subtitles.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Mar 14, 2005

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons Review | The Digital Fix