Master of cool

Documentary narcissist. Wind-up artist. Nick Broomfield knows how to annoy the hell out of his subjects. Mark Wareham joins film students for a lesson from the boss
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The Independent Culture
It's easy to dislike Nick Broomfield, the English documentary maker renowned as much for filming himself as for his controversial subject matter. Most of his interviewees end up screaming at him, and some of them even sue, while critics brand him a documentary narcissist; and as if that weren't enough he's got the kind of sweet chipmunk face that girls just seem to adore. He owns pads in England and Los Angeles, relaxes in the Virgin Isles, has just finished a relationship with screen siren Amanda Donohoe, and is one of the coolest customers in the cosmos.

Broomfield is best known for conducting a ludicrous non-interview with the South African neo-nazi Eugene Terreblanche in The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife, a subversive and mischievously comic film which brilliantly exposed the farcical workings of the white right at a time when apartheid was on the verge of disintegration. This was the film that landed him in the courts for the Jani Allen trial, a case which turned hilariously on the identification of holes in Terreblanche's green underpants, but which also garnered awards, and inflicted his confrontational filmic style on his widest viewing public yet.

In a Broomfield documentary, you get the workings on the outside - the haggling and setting-up of interviews, the endless hanging around, a camera accidentally colliding with its subject, and always always always, Broomfield himself, in black leather jacket and black jeans, armed with his boom mike and looking as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, while all around pandemonium reigns. So what could a group of budding film-makers hope to learn at a Nick Broomfield masterclass that he hadn't already showed them in his work?

Appropriately enough, the class took place in deepest Hackney, at the home of Cultural Partnerships, a film production and training house, and a registered charity. Hackney is, of course, the home of the fly-on-the- wall documentary, housing as it does the highest percentage of visual artists in Europe. Broomfield, however, has never set a film in Hackney. Lesson one: never resort to cliche.

The 40-strong audience was made up of students, first-time film-makers, and, arriving midway through proceedings, Broomfield's fellow National Film School graduate and feted documentarist, Molly Dineen. Although the object was not to create an industry of Broomfield clones, I had hoped that some enterprising student might have turned up at the back with a camcorder shouting: " 'Scuse me Mr Broomfield, 'scuse me, we just wanna ask a few questions."

Alas, in these cash-strapped times, even camcorders are cost prohibitive for students. Karina and her mate from the London College of Printing were here for "just a chance to learn anything, really", though their course didn't actually extend to the practicality of film-making itself.

Channel 4's commissioning editor for documentaries, Peter Moore, whom a typically vague Broomfield had described to me earlier as "Channel 4's commissioning whatever", made the introductions. Broomfield was, he said, "more fly in the ointment than fly on the wall", an "antagonist" who had liberated Moore from his staid Yorkshire TV traditions, where a scene couldn't possibly be shot if it hadn't first been scripted.

He recalled an early encounter, before Broomfield went off to film Juvenile Liaisons 2. " `Have you researched it?' `No.' `So you're just going to turn up with your camera?' `Yes.' `Well it'll never work.' ... And, of course, it did." Moore sat down, but Broomfield remained in his seat. Lesson two: nothing so uncool as to address an audience, or a film interviewee for that matter, standing up - it takes the heat out of the situation.

There followed a sequence of excerpts and debate, opening with Soldier Girls, an early 1980s account of life at a women's military training camp in Georgia. By this time, Broomfield had decided that his camera style was so "plodding", he should move on to sound (lesson three: know your limitations), but had yet to develop his deconstructionalist style. The storyline, as with all his best work, was gripping - sarge bawling out weeping women in barracks and instructing them in the art of survival by biting the head off a chicken. Lesson four: concentrate your narrative on no more than two or three characters - and yes, headless chickens do fly.

Driving Me Crazy, a film about the makings of a doomed musical, saw Broomfield discover his forte - to wind his subjects up to the point where they crack - and in so doing featured himself on camera. "I hadn't intended to at all," he explains innocently, "but the story was so complex that the only way I could get it across was to put myself in. It's a nice device to play around with..." He breaks off, having spotted Molly Dineen in the audience, and can't resist from slipping her one of his trademark put-'em-on-the-spot, playfully nebulous questions. "So, uh, there's Molly Dineen. Molly what do you think?" Molly, it quickly transpires, doesn't think very much, and Peter Moore has to step in to save her. She doesn't stay much longer. Lesson five: let 'em know who's boss.

Driving me Crazy contains a scene that illustrates the extent to which Broomfield delights in toying with his prey. Joe, the musical's exasperated scriptwriter, is reaching the end of his tether. "Just shoot and get out of here. I'm tired of you gaming with me, Nick." "Just tell me how you want this done?" says Broomfield. "Look," explodes Joe, "you don't say `Action', you don't say `Cut'. You're giving me no form." A long silence follows, before Joe's voice, completely broken, can be heard to mutter, "I don't think you're adorable any more." Broomfield, face straight as a die, applies the coup de grace. "Let's just take it from the top." Lesson six: be ruthless - think of the camera as your bayonet.

Prior to Driving Me Crazy, he had made a film about Lily Tomlin which had proved a fiasco. "We were waiting outside her hotel room for weeks, and she'd always have a headache, or the wind would be blowing in the wrong direction. We ended up with a great stock of dinner- party stories but none of them made it into the film. So I decided the next film would reflect our experience of making it... out of desperation, really."

Someone at the back, sensing this might not be the whole truth about his liking for the camera, cheekily asked if he had ever wanted to be an actor. With Broomfield showing no inclination to reply, a drinks break is called. Lesson seven: totally ignore irritating or potentially leading questions.

The third excerpt, the celebrated Terreblanche interview, shows Broomfield at his pluckiest. Having finally landed a showdown with his quarry, he must now be careful to avoid providing a platform for the leader's racist views. So what does he do? He intentionally turns up 10 minutes late in order to provoke Terreblanche's legendary evil temper, with the result that the interview becomes a shambolic schoolboy dressing-down of Broomfield's bad time keeping. Terreblanche, spewing lava: "Who is so important that you people were late. Give me the name of the man, 'cos he must be a hell of a guy." Broomfield, doe- eyed: "I think we were actually... [aside to cameraman in all innocence] Were we getting some tea?" Lesson eight: never show fear, even with a thundering neo-nazi on your back.

His latest film, Heidi Fleiss - Hollywood Madam, sees him playing detective on the trail of America's madam to the stars and, judging by the clip shown, sticks to the winning Broomfield formula - juggling mobiles, cruising Sunset Boulevard shouting: " 'Scuse me, 'scuse me, d'you know Heidi Fleiss" at puzzled hookers, and sitting on some prostitutes' bed, he in his uniform (headphones and mike), she in hers (bra and panties). He pays a visit to Madam Alex, ex-vice queen of Hollywood, and films himself paying cash for the interview. "If they agree to be seen I'll roll from the front door. There's a weird kind of animal sniffing when you first get in there, and that's often the best bit... better than the interview." Lesson nine: never apologise - you're there to make a film, get on with it.

Towards the end, a student who has already tried to get Broomfield to respond to the question: "What is a documentary?", tries his luck once more. "Is documentary truer than drama?" he wants to know. Broomfield stares past him, towards the exit door, and offers him a cruelly dismissive shrug... A masterclass with Nick Broomfield is a lesson in cool.

n Cultural Partnerships' Masterclasses continue in January. Booking: 0171-254 8217.

Nick Broomfield's documentary `Heidi Fleiss - Hollywood Madam' is on 28 Dec, BBC2