Nick Broomfield: Persecution complex

The maverick Nick Broomfield tells Roger Clarke why he's made a second documentary about the serial killer Aileen Wuornos
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The Independent Culture

"I didn't actually sit through the lethal injection," Nick Broomfield tells me. "It was a goon show - they even had mirrors around the gurney so she couldn't turn her face from the witnesses. I'd already filmed Old Sparky. I didn't think I wanted that moment imprinted on my soul."

The documentary-maker is talking about the Florida execution of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos a year ago. Old Sparky, in case you wondered, is the affectionately monikered vintage electric chair, a form of dispatch abandoned by the state since the 1997 execution of one Pedro Medina. His head exploded during the procedure; flames came out of his ears.

Broomfield is sitting with his leg perched on an exquisite Chinese table. He has hurt his knee. From his earliest films, his style has been to get intimately involved in the drama. His female subjects have famously included Heidi Fleiss ("she's really like a wayward sister"), Courtney Love, and Margaret Thatcher ("a villain"), whom he pursued like a demented stalker across the provincial badlands of the UK. He is unusually interested in women and their relationship to sex, power and death. All three seemed to come together when, in 1992, he made a documentary about Wuornos, a Michigan woman branded America's first female serial killer, convicted of killing seven men in a Bonnie and Clyde-style robbery spree.

Last year, Broomfield was served with a subpoena from a Florida court to appear in Wuornos's final state appeal. That original documentary was actually being shown and used as evidence in the courtroom.

He had kept in touch with her, exchanging letters and organising support where appropriate. "After the first film, I spent time trying to get her a decent lawyer, to investigate the police and try to get a retrial," he recalls, that drawling voice so familiar from his films, and even the Volkswagen ads in which he gleefully sends himself up. He always sounds on the verge of boredom, on the cusp of aristocratic insolence. On this issue, though, he's prone to get animated. When Broomfield was called as a witness, he thought it was to get her off death row, where she'd been for 11 years. "And I was surprised, to say the very least, when I discovered that she was now saying that she had killed in cold blood. Well, what the fuck am I doing here?"

In his view, prison "drove her nuts". But she got what she wanted. Despite a constitutional ban on executing the mentally incapable, and a Supreme Court ruling in June 2002 confirming this, Governor Jeb Bush signed her execution warrant in September 2002 after a cursory 15-minute examination by three psychiatrists found her mentally sound. "It was an incredibly cynical move because the elections were due and Bush wanted to avoid the accusation that there had been no psychiatric evaluation," Broomfield says.

He believes that she is guilty but that capital punishment is amoral. He paints her as a tragic figure rather than a monster. "The first murder, I believe, was self-defence," he says, unwilling to be pinned down. "As to those other murders, I don't know."

Like many of his generation, Broomfield's once-romantic view of the US has been dashed by recent events. He doesn't think there's an FBI file on him as a subversive ("I would hope I'm sufficiently off the radar"), but he no longer enjoys his visits to America, where so many of his films have been made. "I hated being there," he says of the Wuornos visit. "Most of the people I was close to when I lived in Los Angeles have left the country since George Bush got in. I have friends who can't say what they think at parties because they'll lose their movie projects. Seriously, they will. A lot of people are suddenly being investigated and having their tax returns disputed."

There's an interest in betrayal in his films, I say to him. I think he worries about being lied to and not being able to spot it. That's why Aileen was such a conundrum. "My training was originally as a lawyer," he nods. "I suppose the law is a lot to do with the truth, of one sort or another. And the extent to which it is represented. It reveals the level of civilisation of any society." Another theme is money. In Broomfield's first film on Wuornos, he focuses on the desire of her entourage to sell her story to the highest bidder (Hollywood, in this case).

I ask Broomfield how he feels about Monster, a biopic on Wuornos starring Charlize Theron, due for release next year (there was also a 1992 TV drama about the case, tactfully called Overkill). Theron is a mate of Broomfield's, but he hasn't seen the film and gets testy when questioned further. "It's kind of bad taste to talk about someone else's project, and she's a friend."

Reading between the lines, he's not mad keen on Monster. Don't be surprised if he adds something to the story in a few years' time: Aileen: The Filming of a Serial Killer.

'Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer' is now showing; see Anthony Quinn's review

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