Nick Broomfield, Battle For Haditha
Immediately distinguishable by his understated good looks, laid-back, drawling English voice and, of course, the boom mike seemingly always in his hands, Nick Broomfield is an iconic figure in documentary filmmaking, as well as one of the form’s most talented artists. The son of English photographer Maurice Broomfield and a Czech refugee, Broomfield went to a Quaker boarding school before studying law at Cardiff University, political science at Essex University and finally film at the National Film School in his hometown of London. Combining his interest in sociopolitical issues with filmmaking, Broomfield made his directorial debut while at university with Who Cares (1971), a short documentary about the slum clearance in Liverpool. Broomfield’s early films tackled racism, juvenile delinquency, and working class poverty and were often co-directed with his wife, Joan Churchill. His profile increased after making Driving Me Crazy (1988), the first documentary in which he was a prominent presence, and the following year he made his fiction debut with Dark Obsession, a thriller about the cover-up of a hit-and-run death by British soldiers. Over the past 15 years, Broomfield has had huge success making personality-driven documentaries such as Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher (1994), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995), Kurt & Courtney (1998), Biggie and Tupac (2002) and two films about the serial killer Aileen Wournos, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003).
In 2006, Broomfield returned to narrative filmmaking with Ghosts, an account of the death of Chinese cockle pickers in England in 2004. He continues to blend fact and fiction in his latest project, Battle for Haditha, about the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. With a cast made up of ex-Marines and Iraqis, Broomfield’s film examines the events surrounding the killings from the perspective of Iraqi insurgents, Iraqi civilians and the U.S. Marines. It effectively utilizes a naturalistic, documentary style in presenting a balanced account of the massacre which humanizes the actions of each faction in an attempt to understand why these tragic deaths took place. Immediate and immensely powerful, Battle for Haditha is simultaneously sympathetic and critical of the actions of the insurgents and occupying troops but offers hope for the conflict with the idea that each side should attempt to understand the other.
Filmmaker spoke to Broomfield about his shift to fiction filmmaking, the current political malaise and his aborted attempt to make a funny film about a tax office.
Filmmaker: Before I started recording, you were saying that you are currently having to do a lot of commercials because of how much of your own money you sunk into Battle For Haditha.
Broomfield: Well, I inadvertently ended up sticking my salary in it, which was pretty bad. I have this particular deal with Film Four where I pretty much keep the back end so I’m used to subsidizing the film and trying to pay myself back from the back end. There definitely will be a back end on this film, I just think it’ll take a lot longer than with other films. I’ve always found that quite a good exercise in a way, a good discipline – I did it with all my documentaries. Sometimes my budget is for five weeks and I end up doing it for 14, or however long it takes to make the film. You always have to try and make the film that is there rather than the film that fits in the budget, which is a good discipline for any filmmaker. It’s just that this has been a much bigger shortfall than I’ve had on my other films.
Filmmaker: Did you go over schedule?
Broomfield: No, we kept to the schedule but there was a shortfall of $1 million. I was slightly over-optimistic about how easy it was going to be to get it, so basically I’ve had to defray a million dollars pretty much myself, which is a lot of money. Filmmaking is a gamble and one of the prices of being an independent filmmaker is that you take on as little money as possible that will compromise your independence. When you get lots of people involved, their money always comes at a heavy price.
Filmmaker: What lead you to make the shift from straight documentary to a mix of fact and fiction?
Broomfield: I just decided that I wanted to do a different kind of film. It’s taken what I’ve learned in documentary – which is how to work with real people who have an amazing story to tell – and blending that with a more structured storyline or script, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Because of the technological changes a new kind of cinema is possible, and that involves using real people and real locations and shooting in a style which is very much like documentary. In other words, long takes and editing in real time. It’s potentially a much more powerful cinema than we have at the moment and it could lend itself to action and comedy as well. I’m just playing around with it, really, but I’m sure that a lot of other people will start working in that form in the future. I think it will be an enormous and overdue change in cinema. It’s an exciting future, actually.
Filmmaker: How different was your preparation for this film from what it would have been for a documentary? Presumably both involve very rigorous research.
Broomfield: I tend to do the research on the documentaries as I’m shooting the films. Normally I do a fair amount of preliminary research, but what I like most about documentary – and there are lots of different styles and ways of making them – is to have them being very spontaneous and a quest, rather than it being all sewed up with your beginning, middle and end all worked out. Why not go and make a feature film if you’re going to do that? So my documentaries are less researched than this film. On this film, I met the Marines from Kilo Company, spent quite a few days with them, met all the journalists, not only who worked on the Haditha story but journalists who had generally been covering the Iraq war. I then went to Oman and met with survivors of the massacre and insurgents and people who knew about the insurgency. It was probably a much more thoroughly researched film than one of my documentaries would have been at the outset. We wrote the script very much from that research.
Filmmaker: How detailed was the script? How much room did you leave for improvisation and spontaneity?
Broomfield: I would say that the overall structure of the film very much reflects the script that we had. The scene breakdown was pretty detailed as to what was to happen in each scene but the Marines and the Iraqi actors all brought a lot of their own experience to it. One of the problems of the tradition of writing scripts is that often the scriptwriter doesn’t know as much as real people who’ve lived it. He’s only in his Hollywood bungalow, or wherever, he hasn’t been to Iraq, he doesn’t know any Iraqis, he doesn’t know anything about Muslim culture, so a lot of it’s imagined. It’s a great luxury to have those people with you and it’s better for them to say “Actually, we don’t do it that way,” “We don’t say that,” “We don’t clear our house this way.” So you defer to them, which is very much like making a documentary, and I’ve always enjoyed that process of having a sense of the film you’re making but allowing the people to define it in the detail.
Filmmaker: How much did let the action just play when you were directing?
Broomfield: I certainly let the action play at the beginning because I’m fascinated to see what they’re going to do with it and sometimes they do things that are very unexpected and sometimes what they do is a damn sight better than what you had in mind. They surprise you. It’s bit like with a documentary: you allow those surprises to happen, which is the joy of making those films. It’s often the unexpected that is revealing and fantastic. And then I would define it more; often it’s cutting down dialogue. People tend to speak too much and they speak a lot of rubbish sometimes, so you say “Do the action, but don’t feel you have to talk so much. Just talk when there’s something worth saying.” Sometimes the first take’s a great one, sometimes it’s take 48.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene in the film where the insurgents coach a young girl as she is giving her testimony on camera. Is this something you ever are tempted to do or need to do when making one of your documentaries?
Broomfield: I would never do that. Maybe when I was a film student. Last night a young student asked me about ethics and I always think the litmus test as a filmmaker is to sit through your film without squirming. If you set people up, it’s just an uncomfortable thing. I don’t think you ever need to. If you pre-interview people, they will inevitably say things better the first time so then you try and coax them into saying what they said the first time and it never works, and you learn to shoot them the first time.
Filmmaker: I asked you about that because some people try to make their documentaries totally unambiguous.
Broomfield: Everyone got all upset about whether the Queen had walked in the room before or after [her infamous walkout in the BBC documentary A Year with the Queen], or whether the shot had been the other way around. That guy [BBC One controller Peter Fincham] resigned over it. I mean, let’s get real here: there are some issues that are worth getting upset about, like Tony Blair and George Bush lying to the whole world about why they were going into Iraq. That’s something worth getting into. Do I give a fuck about whether she had an argument before a shot was taken? No, I don’t care, and I think it’s all a storm in a teacup, it’s evading the big issues. We’ve lived in a decade of evading any real issues, and people in Britain and America feeling completely impotent to make themselves heard. So people seize on irrelevant things and address non-issues. The real issue is most of the electorate in both countries was against the war. We still went to war and we’re still fighting this war five years later. People have said we’re against torture, and we have an American president that’s saying waterboarding’s OK. I think people feel it doesn’t matter what they say, so many rules are being broken, they’ve lost power, they don’t have a political party that represents them anymore – it’s a terrible, dangerous apathy. That’s why all political films, not just the Iraq films, are doing badly. Any film that’s to do with anything vaguely political is doing badly because people feel impotent.
Filmmaker: You write in your director’s notes about your hopes for what the film can achieve, but how can you overcome that Iraq movie apathy?
Broomfield: One of the sad things about all the Iraq films that have been released by the studios – and I’m not including the documentaries in this statement – is that none of them have had any Iraqi characters in them, which is kind of telling. You would think one of the things is that we’d learn who some of the Iraqis are, what their culture is, how they see the world. That’s the way forward, but unfortunately none of the films have done that. I think that’s indicative of something. Around the time of Vietnam, there was a feeling that people could do something – it was power to the people, and people were demonstrating. It was a very political time when people believed that what they said mattered. There was the civil rights movement, there was all that political fervor, and this is the opposite to that. This is a period where two million people did march in London [in opposition to the war], but it didn’t make any difference. People think, “Let’s look at Britney’s tits instead.” Part of what a democracy is about is that people are supposed to be active and they feel that their vote counts and what they say matters and I don’t think there’s that belief anymore.
Filmmaker: It’s very true that previous Iraq films have had a purely American focus, but this film is the exception to that rule. You break the situation down into the three factions and then sympathetically show each side of the story.
Broomfield: Well, that’s how we move forward, a recognition of who your so-called enemy is – which in this case is the people we’re supposed to be liberating. [We need to show] a respect for their culture, a respect for their religion, their lives. Obviously, that hasn’t happened at all.
Filmmaker: Over the course of making the film and recreating the Haditha massacre in Jordan, did you see any signs of hope?
Broomfield: I think what cinema does – or can do – is stand back from the plethora of news reports and newspaper articles and give you a context in which to look at it. That’s what I hope the film will do really, but it also needs to be reflected in a change of political administration or direction or vision. Maybe after the election there will be a change, there will be a new vision, a new approach, and then people will be more receptive to actually engaging and working out what that way forward is and have more of an interest in who the Iraqis are.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Broomfield: Making a film about a tax office which was supposedly to be entertaining and funny, and realizing that it was just the most boring place. It was in the days of the union film crews so I had an enormous crew and a cameraman who refused to use a zoom lens, so if I said “Go in tight,” he would actually walk up to the person and, not surprisingly, they’d stop talking. It’s the only film I never finished. We shot for two days and just said, “Look, it’s not going to happen.”
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Broomfield: To not wait for the money, to believe in the idea and borrow a camera and just go and shoot it.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Broomfield: It was probably Charlie Chaplin, maybe The Gold Rush or something like that. My father had a projector and I remember he used to rent Charlie Chaplin films, so he was my hero. He was always somebody who managed to say lots of things that were worthwhile saying in an extremely entertaining and funny way (look what happened to him…), so I guess that’s something worth emulating.