From Eugene Terre’Blanche to American serial killer Aileen Wuornos … Dale Reynolds spoke to Nick Broomfield about truth and documentaries
WITH policemen, law-yers, journalists and judges chasing after the film rights to the story of American serial killer Aileen (Lee) Wuornos, it is a tribute to the talent and perseverence of British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield that his documentary, The Selling of a Serial Killer, is such a fine film.
Best known here for his film on Eugene Terre’Blanche and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging — The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife — Broomfield, who now lives in California, has recently completed a film on Margaret Thatcher (to be shown on the South African International Film Festival, formerly the Weekly Mail Film Festival, later this year) and successfully defended his film Intelligent Life in the Universe against a lawsuit filed by its subject, comedian Lily Tomlin.
It’s a bit of a distance from comedians and politicians to prostitutes who kill their customers, but Broomfield found Wuornos — who went on her killing spree in 1990 — fascinating: not, he says, because of an interest in serial killers in general, but because this time the killer was a woman, and the victims men. It was, he says, “kind of refreshing … because most of these murders are men on women. I thought there was a different story there.”
“There” was the southern state of Florida, politically and socially conservative, where Wuornos plied her trade as a prostitute at a roadhouse, picking up men, robbing and killing them and, apparently, handing the loot over to her lover, Tyria Moore. Wuornos was convicted of seven murders and sentenced to death in the electric chair. The case is on appeal.
There are sections of the film that those who have seen earlier Broomfield documentaries — particularly the one on Terre’Blanche — will recognise: footage of the director facing obstacles in pursuit of his story.
When Broomfield and his crew tried to get an interview with Wuornos, the focus of his story began to change. “She had fired her first two sets of lawyers because they’d been more interested in making movie deals than they were in representing her in the justice system.” He captured on videotape a lawyer demanding, first, $25 000, then less, for access to Wuornos.
“I often think in terms of film that the most interesting time is when you first meet someone, when you’re sussing each other out. There’s a sniping period, which is why I try to keep those initial meetings in the film. It gives the audience a privileged and subjective look at how it would be to walk through that door — to have that encounter.
“Obviously I’m doing the encounter myself for the audience, but I think it gives a rawness and a reality that only a really gritty documentary can give … It offers a kind of weird, almost out-of-control, insight into things.”
The insights he gained revolve around the commercialisation of murder — and betrayal. “What changed it for me was seeing footage of Wuornos’ girlfriend getting her to make the confession,” he says. “The thought of one’s nearest and dearest betraying one in such radical fashion … is a form of treachery we can all identify with. But when I looked further into the case I saw there were other people who had betrayed her, too: her lawyers, her adoptive, born-again motherE– there was a long pattern.”
The person central to the story is bounced around like a character out of Dickens. As Broomfield is quick to point out, Wuornos was an abused, abandoned child who grew up into a drifting, drugged-out prostitute, who turned male tricks for money, and loved women for self-esteem.
“Lee’s gayness was only relevant to me as it caused her problems in Florida. She — like a lot of prostitutes — got pretty badly whacked around and abused; she was, essentially, a victim, and I think she just went over the line.”
Through Broomfield we learn that the trial took only two days, that her former lover’s testimony backed up her taped confession, and that the “hanging judge” gave her the electric chair when her lawyer made no particular defence for her.
“I’d like to see some kind of reassessment of her case,” he says. “I truly believe there was a miscarriage of justice.” His suspicions centre on the part played by Wuornos’ lover, who turned state’s witness in exchange for indemnity from prosecution; and on evidence that was not allowed by the trial judge.
Moreover, he says, “I think the police interest in the movie deals were in themselves grounds for dismissal, as the police were no longer an unbiased impartial group who were trying to see justice done. They had a vested interest in how the trial came out. Everyone did.”