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Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons|
director: Nick Broomfield
532 minutes (18) 2004 widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
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
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.
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
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
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
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.