Nick Broomfield has been creating a vast body of varied and groundbreaking films for over twenty-five years from Behind the Rent Strike (1974) to Tracking Down Maggie (1994). Broomfield is somewhat of an enigma, favouring the participatory approach to documentary filmmaking, thus making a profound mark on his films.
Broomfield’s interest in the lives of others began at an early age: “I went on a foreign exchange trip to France when I was fifteen. The boy I was staying with was studying for exams, so I borrowed a scooter and went riding around the countryside, where I took photographs and struck up conversations. Taking photographs was a passport to speak to people and to get information, which to me was more interesting and revealing about the world we live in than reading books or newspaper articles.”
Broomfield’s first foray into filmmaking was in 1970 when he made Who Cares? This exposed the decimation of a strong close-knit working class community in Abercrombie, Liverpool, by slum clearance. “I borrowed a wind up Bolex camera and shot on short ends of film, I couldn’t do interviews, so the images tell the story.” The community was dispersed to high-rise developments, losing its integral structure and isolating the former inhabitants. Broomfield attended the National Film School in Beaconsfield, where the influential Professor Colin Young taught him.
Broomfield’s pioneering on-screen appearance began with Driving Me Crazy (1988), a film he described as “hopelessly out of control.” How has this technique influenced Broomfield’s subsequent documentary films? “It enables you to establish more in-depth relationship with people. When filming you show more things than in a feature film, which requires a beginning, middle and end sequence. Appearing in the film gives you the flexibility to include thoughts and flashing of things, contextualising what is happening.” Broomfield elaborates, “The thing that excites me about filmmaking is the spontaneity, I want there to be energy, so that it feels real.”
Broomfield’s latest film is Battle For Haditha (2007), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was filmed in Jordan and is what Broomfield refers to as a “reality fiction”, with the tagline; “There are many ways to see the same story.” The story in Battle For Haditha focuses on the small town of Haditha in Iraq and the events of 19 November 2005, when a roadside bomb planted by insurgents exploded, killing a US Marine driving a Humvee in a convoy of four vehicles. This triggered an alleged massacre of 24 innocent Iraqi men, women and children by the Marines. The Haditha killings are akin to the nightmare of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, casting its shadow over the Iraq war. Broomfield explains, “I wanted to do something that looked at the war from more than one point of view. We get a very small picture of what is happening in the media, only with the British and American soldiers, but we hear very little from the Iraqi side. I wanted to know what is an insurgent? It is a very derogatory terminology. I wanted to know where do they come from? What are their beliefs? Broomfield continues, “I found that although Battle For Haditha focuses on one event, it was an opportunity to get some real information and create a human portrait of the war; the affect of war on the human. Not only on the psyche of American Marines who committed the massacre, but also on the Iraqis trying to raise their families in a hopeless situation. I want people to realise that this is not just another war.”
Battle For Haditha follows Ghosts (2006), another “reality fiction” capturing the hidden exploitation of Chinese illegal immigrant workers. They are depicted in their desperate quest to repay the gang masters who trafficked them, and were reduced to cockle picking on Morecambe Bay, which resulted in most of them tragically drowning on 5 February 2004.
In Battle For Haditha, Broomfield uses non-actors to tell the story, and captures the drama with real Marines and Iraqi citizens. Broomfield immerses himself in the subculture of the group he wishes to portray. “Before I made Battle For Haditha I went with Anna Telford, who co-wrote the script with me to meet the survivors of the massacre. We also met with Marines who had taken part in the massacre, and journalists, photographers and filmmakers who were there. I really tried to get a good sense of what happened from all points of view. Feature films are very much of the theatre tradition. They have actors, sets, props and make up. I am using real people and locations, with no catering truck, and I only have a small crew, which makes the shoot very intimate. The people speak in their own dialect and many of the Iraqis have lost family members. They speak with real power, not like someone who has been to drama school trying to act it.”
The harrowing situations Broomfield portrays show the reality of a morally complex war, Elliot Ruiz a 22 year old former Marine who served in Iraq plays Corporal Ramirez in Battle For Haditha. How did his personal experience of the Iraq war impact Battle For Haditha? “Elliot had a very bad experience, he was at a roadblock when a suicide bomber struck, and he became entangled in razor wire and lost the use of his leg for a long period of time afterwards. Elliot was invalided out of the Marines and he did not receive good follow up care. It was as if he was simply expendable, and this really comes over in his performance.” Battle For Haditha assesses the impact of the war on all parties involved. “There are so many genres of filmmaking, but I want to focus on a real subject, that is powerful. I want to show the human dilemma when at war. The language of war is one of paranoia and suspicion. A lot of terrible decisions are made on both sides. You can’t simply blame the Marines; nothing good ever comes out of a situation like Haditha.”
Broomfield’s unparalleled documentaries and genre of “reality fiction” filmmaking identifies the tragedies invoked by human decision-making in situations of unprecedented pressure and ultimately human suffering. Battle For Haditha is a microcosm of the Iraq war and exemplifies why Broomfield’s filmmaking is needed now more than ever to expose what is happening in the world today.
The Battle For Haditha was on cinema release from 29 February 2008 and wasscreened on More4 later in the year. www.nickbroomfield.com.