Category: documentary / In category: 5 of 10 / Overall: 43 of 100
As a documentary filmmaker, Nick Broomfield’s approach has always been as lo-fi as it is provocative. Working with an extremely small crew, usually touting the sound equipment himself, Broomfield goes after the story as tenaciously as a hunting dog. His films are often more about his search for the facts than the ostensible subject.
In ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’, Broomfield’s subject appears mostly in archive footage. His quest to gain an interview with her culminates in one brief conversation. The implications of what they discuss – and Broomfield’s subsequent probing – results in doors closing and denial, by prison authorities, of a further interview.
But before Broomfield even gets this far, he has to negotiate the twin hurdles of a corpulent lawyer who fancies himself as an entertainer, and a born-again Christian with about as much soul and spiritual benevolence as a cash register. Broomfield initially approached the subject of Aileen Wuornos while unenthusiastically perusing research material for a possible series on serial killers; initially discouraged that all he had on his hands were endless accounts of men killing prostitutes, he stumbled across Wuornos – a prostitute who had killed seven men. Broomfield set out to tell Wuornos’s story. The resulting documentary, however, soon reveals itself as the story of how the imprisoned Wuornos became a financial commodity.
During the police investigation into the killings, two suspects were sought and police sketches were issued in the likenesses of both Wuornos and her partner Tyria Moore. Arrested, Wuornos insisted the killings were in self-defence and determinedly kept Moore out of it. Moore repaid the favour by cooperating with the police and conducting a series of (borderline entrapment) phone conversations designed to make Wuornos implicate herself. Moore’s lawyer also represented some of the officers on the case in trying to line up a profitable deal with a film production company.
Nor does Wuonos’s lawyer, Steve Glazer, emerge as anything other than a shyster. Obese, ill-groomed, grinningly insincere and self-delusional with respect to his musical ability (he all but admits the law was a reluctant alternative to a never-viable career in showbiz), Glazer would comes across as a satirical figure but for the fact that his interest in Wuornos has nothing to do with her rights and/or entitlement to legal representation. Glazer – along with the equally reprehensible Arlene Pralle – is clearly out to use Wuornos as a cash cow.
And yes, at a cynical base level, you can look at Glazer, remember he’s a lawyer and ask yourself if you really expected anything else. But what to make of Pralle? Doll-like, softly spoken, well-mannered, a born-again Christian, she adopted Wuornos as her ‘daughter’ after they had exchanged correspondence, poetry and drawings following Wuornos’s conviction. Archive footage shows her speaking defensively of Wuornos, declaring that she couldn’t have done such terrible things.
In front of Broomfield’s camera, she shows her true colours, promising him the inside story on Wuornos and agreeing to arrange an interview, but holding out for $25,000. Broomfield’s queries vis-à-vis the transaction elicit a referral to Glazer (she refers to him as “my agent”). Late in the day, with a down payment made (Pralle denies receiving it even though Broomfield reminds her he’s got it on film) and none of her promises delivered on, Pralle again tries to palm Broomfield off, insisting he talk to Glazer to confirm whether the $25K gets just the interview or “the letters, the poems, the artwork, everything”. Broomfield steps slightly outside of the documentarist’s remit at this stage and delivers a verdict of his own. “I think you’re a very very deceptive person,” he tells her pointedly, “and I think you’re incredibly mercenary and I think you’ve been playing around with us and I’ve had enough.”
Wuornos, when Broomfield eventually gets his interview, demonstrates that she has reached the same conclusion. She lambasts Glazer and Pralle and urges Broomfield to look into the profiteering cops and the movie deal. Although the documentary ends with archive footage of one of the implicated cops leaving the force, Broomfield’s subsequent attempts to contact the police department are stonewalled.
In amongst all this venal money-grubbing and sneaky side-stepping of the “Son of Sam law” (i.e. the legislature stipulating that a serial killer not earn money from selling their story) – which was essentially happening here, only with the proceeds being diverted into Glazer and Pralle’s pockets – it would have been easy to lose sight of Wuornos herself and the killings she committed. Broomfield doesn’t fall into that trap, though. He incorporates two pieces of footage which provide chilling reminder. The first is Wuornos on the stand, recounting – in increasingly disturbing detail – Richard Mallory’s sexual assault on her. The second counters any criticism that might have been made of the documentary as an hour and a half’s worth of sympathy of the devil. It shows Wuornos’s response after sentence has been passed. “I hope your wife and kids get raped in the ass,” she offers to the prosecutor, before telling the judge, “I was raped and you’re scum. Putting someone who was raped to death, you fucking bastard. Motherfucker.”
It’s a moment that weighs awkwardly against Broomfield’s assertion that Wuornos was the most honest and straightforward person in the documentary. Had ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’ been Broomfield’s last word on the subject, a nagging sense of the unfinished might have dogged the project. A decade later, however, just as he was finishing work on his equally controversial ‘Biggie and Tupac’, Wuornos came back into Broomfield’s orbit.