Nick Broomfield is somewhat of an enigma in the world of documentary filmmaking. The British minimalist is best known for his investigative documentaries where he’s as much a character in them as his subject matter, something which influenced the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock to do the same. The best examples of this are his 1998 doc Kurt and Courtney about the late Nirvana singer and its follow-up Biggie & Tupac, and Broomfield also made two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer played by Charlize Theron when she won an Oscar for Monster.
Recently, Broomfield switched gears to making dramatic features of sorts, unscripted films using mostly non-actors, to interesting effect. His latest in that regard is Battle for Haditha, a multi-perspective look at the November 2005 incident in which a Marine convoy was blown-up by insurgents in Iraq, leading to a violent house raid that left 24 Iraqis including women and children dead. The controversy surrounding whether the Marines should be tried for murder or negligent homicide has added to the anger surrounding the current situation in Iraq.
Due to the nature of the film in trying to show different sides of the incident, there are certainly comparisons that could be made to Brian de Palma’s Redacted although it feels a lot more real and less gimmicky, but the biggest difference between it and Broomfield’s past few movies is that his presence or watermark is notably absent.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Broomfield to talk about his latest film and how it differs from some of the other Iraq films we’ve seen in the past few years.
ComingSoon.net: I guess the most obvious question is why tackle Iraq now after covering so many different topics in your movies?
Nick Broomfield: Well, it’s a film really about war and it’s a film about what happens probably in any war situation when the ability to communicate and talk has gone, so it’s a film really about the language of war and what happens in a war, and really looking at that circle of violence that escalates and has the kind of outcome that you see in the film.
CS: I assume you were inspired to make the movie when you first heard about the incident?
Broomfield: Yeah, I saw that, but I’ve been wanting to make this film for a while. In a way Haditha is an incident that I picked that illustrates it. I think what is different about this film is that war tends to be portrayed always as “goodies” and “baddies,” black and white, and what this film is about is all those gray areas that happen, and also it humanizes the enemy. I think all the groups in the film are very human. I think we probably like each group: the Marines, the Iraqi civilians who are trying to lead their lives, and we like the freedom fighters, or insurgents as well. We understand each group, and it’s like no one is evil or bad, but the inevitable outcome is one of destruction which will continue on even worse and it will feed from itself, so this circle of violence and hatred and suspicion will just increase into the next generation. That’s really kind of what the film is about, and I just felt that it was worth making.
CS: You said you wanted to do something like this before. Was there something about this particular incident which made it sound like it would be appropriate?
Broomfield: Well, yeah, I think that this film works very well when it’s focused on a specific thing, a specific incident, a specific occurrence, and so the story is told over the period of 48 hours really, and in that 48 hours you are leading up to a bomb going off in the street. You learn the relative positions of the Marines and the Iraqis, so you understand these groups, and I think you get to like and sympathize with them more. Then this incident has a significance to you, the audience, that probably it wouldn’t have otherwise. I think there have been a lot of films made that are very unspecific war films and it’s hard to get the same kind of concentration of emotion really.
CS: As a documentary filmmaker, did you have to do a lot of research or did you have to approach this differently than you normally would?
Broomfield: Yeah, we did mounds of research. In fact, in most of my documentaries I would do most of the research while I’m shooting the film, but in this instance we did a lot of research before we had to write the script, so the research was for the script. We met with Marines from Kilo company. We met with survivors from the massacre. We met with some insurgents. We met with all the journalists who had worked on the story, giants from “Time” magazine, “The Washington Post,” “New York Times,” so on and so forth. I would say we did a good six months of research before the script was finalized in any way, and then of course, we used real ex-Marines who brought a lot of their experiences. To make things accurate, we used Iraqi refugees who told us about their culture and their experiences and so on. I think that brought an authenticity to the film that it wouldn’t have had if we used professional actors.
CS: Did you try to take a similar approach as Michael Winterbottom and Paul Greengrass in trying to recreate the events in a realistic way by using real people and not having a script?
Broomfield: I don’t think Paul Greengrass has done that really; I don’t know which of his films you are referring to, but certainly Michael Winterbottom. I love Paul’s work, but I think it’s probably scripted and it’s pretty much actors. I think in “United 93” he uses some actual air controllers, and maybe it was a bit improvised in there, but I think “Bloody Sunday” was pretty much scripted. I love his work, but I think it’s different from Michael Winterbottom’s work in so far as something like “In This World.” I think there was a lot more improvisation and it was not actors and so on, I think that was probably more the model.
CS: What were your guidelines when you were looking for soldiers and the people to play the Iraqi villagers and insurgents?
Broomfield: Well, I think the secret is if you are using non-actors you have to cast people for who they are. You don’t want to cast non-actors to start acting because then you get the worst of both worlds, so with non-actors in the casting you try to find people to represent those kind of characters, and you also try and create a situation which is real as possible where they are as comfortable as possible. So the Marines, for example, were living in barracks that we built. The Iraqis were living in those houses, and we had a very small crew of about five people for most of the time, obviously when we weren’t doing the big explosions and that sort of thing. You have to shoot in sequence with non-actors. You can’t just say, “Well, you’ve just lost your, whatever, and your reaction to this,” because again, it’s non-actors, so it comes with certain restraints which I think you have to work through.
CS: I know you filmed the whole thing in Jordan, so how long was the film shoot and did it involve a lot of building or finding locations that would work for what you needed?
Broomfield: It was all shot on one location. Some of the desert stuff was shot slightly further over, right on the Iraqi border in fact, but all the rest of it was shot in a very confined area.
CS: And you actually built some of the locations used for the movie?
Broomfield: Well, the barracks were a part of a school, so yeah, we built the tower, we built some walls around it, we built the barracks, we built the interior of the barracks, you know, we did quite a lot of messing around, but we didn’t build actual sets.
CS: So you created the settings as they normally might by finding locations and converting them into other things. You mentioned the actual bombing and you have a lot of military vehicles that makes this movie a lot bigger than you normally might after your previous dramatic films. Can you talk about being involved in a movie where you have to create this war situation?
Broomfield: Well, I found that side of things came to me very naturally and that sort of side of things is fun. You have a lot of action and it’s what cinema does best I think, and easiest. It’s very visual, and I think the action always creates a reality, and it creates movement, and it makes it easier for people to be real sometimes.
CS: Obviously there’s a lot involved in setting up an explosion underneath a car, and choreographing how people are going to shoot at each other. You can’t just say, “Go and do it,” you have to set a lot of things up.
Broomfield: Yeah, you have to set things up, but I think you just make sure it’s as real as possible. You shoot it in a way that’s as real as possible, and if you are using ex-Marines you find out how they would’ve done it, and you let them tell you how they would do it, and you create a situation which gives them as much freedom as possible to move around really and to carry on the action afterwards, so for example, we would shoot the explosions and try to keep cameras running, when we blew the Humvee up, we kept the camera on the insurgents as they were running out so you have that energy, and you know, you try not to stop the action too much.
CS: You shot with multiple cameras, so would you say it was shot more like a television drama might be?
Broomfield: Not really. I mean think a television type thing normally happens on quite small sets and this one was enormous, so we had one camera running around with the insurgents. We had one camera with the Marines, and then we had obviously different cameras shooting it from different angles as well.
CS: Obviously when you have a movie based on a real incident where you have to maintain the facts and all the known information, is there a certain amount of conjecture involved, because you want to try and keep it balanced?
Broomfield: Well yeah. I mean if you’re talking about the actual incident, we went through all the government reports and stuff. We looked at all the witness statements and pretty much put it together from there.
CS: For instance, some of the things that happened before the bombing
Broomfield: Yeah, there was a certain amount of license taken there, but once the Humvee blows up, that’s all very much drawn from I mean we changed the name of the characters and the characters are slightly different, but what happened, for example, with the guys in front of the taxi, the the kind of taxi it was and where the taxi pulls up, and the clearing of the houses. The to and fro of the radio calls and stuff, right through to the insurgents filming the witness, it’s all based on what happened.
CS: Now the person who actually filmed the bodies, was it actually one of the people involved with the bombing as we see in the movie?
Broomfield: Well, I think somebody involved with the insurgency shot that material, and certainly the insurgency was involved in distributing the video around whether or not you call them the insurgency or the patriots or the freedom fighters or you know, the liberators, whatever.
CS: When did you start making this film because I know it was at Toronto last year, and you also had a movie at Sundance earlier that year.
Broomfield: We started shooting in February of 2007. Literally three weeks (after Sundance) I started on this.
CS: There’ve been a lot of docs about the situation in Iraq, so have any of them informed you before or while making this?
Broomfield: Yeah, I thought some of those docs were very good. I mean obviously we looked at “The Ground Truth” which is Patricia Foulkrod’s film. I think “My Country My Country” I looked at, and “Iraq in Fragments,” I saw most of those films and they were all quite useful. There was quite a useful film done about the insurgency too by an Australian journalist whose name completely eludes me, which was quite useful as an introduction to the insurgency, because there’s been surprisingly little material actually done on the insurgency and who they are. They are traditionally being portrayed as sort of Al Qaeda, which is pretty inaccurate.
CS: “No End in Sight” was one of the good ones, which was also at Sundance last year.
Broomfield: Yeah, that was a pretty good film; I saw that at Sundance the same year.
CS: I’m sure you’ve been asked this, but Brian De Palma’s movie “Redacted” was also at Toronto the same year as this. Your movie is far more realistic but I wondered if you knew that his movie was being made at essentially the same time as yours?
Broomfield: Brian and I were both in Jordan pretty much at the same time. He started about three or four weeks after me, but we shared explosive experts and little bits and pieces.
CS: Did you make an effort to see his movie at all?
Broomfield: Yes, I saw his film in Toronto. We shot at the same time. I just can’t comment on that.
CS: American audiences have not been the most open about Iraq films in general, and there’ve been some great movies like “The Ground Truth,” which everyone should see. Do you have any thoughts on that and why that might be?
Broomfield: I think people feel we’re stuck in this war and it doesn’t really matter what they say, but their powers, and I suppose it’s not just Iraq, but it’s any vaguely political movie. I think the difference is that probably in the ’60s, people felt if they took to the streets and marched and protested, that they would be listened to and it would have an effect. I don’t think anyone believes that anymore.
CS: I think the marches here in New York during the 2004 Republican Convention kind of deflated a lot of balloons once Bush was reelected anyway.
Broomfield: Well, you know, it’s like these guys are still in power, they steal reelections, they ignore the rules of law, they ignore everything, the Geneva Convention, they do what we want. Why don’t we get on with our lives and worry about our house being repossessed, or watch films about Britney Spears? I figure until there’s a change in administration, there’s a change in direction, or a change in vision, a new vision I think that empowers people, it’s not really going to change very much.
CS: I’ve seen a lot of documentaries just because that’s part of my job, and I’ve noticed there isn’t really a spokesperson for the youth like a John Lennon or an Allen Ginsberg, someone who could connect to the young people and get them to protest. Filmmakers are really the ones getting behind trying to show other sides, but no one else is doing that. All the kids have are Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and Miley Cyrus.
Broomfield: It’s true, it’s true, I know, I know. I think if somebody who was really charismatic came to power, who people believed in and believed in a vision, and a statesman-like figure came to power, I think things would change and there would be an excitement and an interest which is what a democracy should be, shouldn’t it?
CS: I totally agree. I also don’t remember there being a lot of Vietnam movies during the war, but afterwards, some of the best ones came out in the late ’70s.
Broomfield: Well, I think it was a different time. I do think there was a lot more belief that they would be listened to, and it was a much more radical time I think. I think people just feel this is a corporate world and they’re in control. I think people just feel very alienated from the whole political process. I don’t think it’s just the Iraq movies. I think it’s any movie that’s about anything.
CS: So what are you planning to do next? You’ve done two back to back dramas at this point, so are you done with documentaries for a while?
Broomfield: I think I’ll probably carry on with the dramas for a bit and try to get them to work, different areas maybe. I mean each film you learn something and then you try to push that thing forward a bit. I learned a lot on this film, and I enjoyed doing the action a great deal. A lot of my documentaries are sort of comedies, so I think I’d be interested in trying to maybe work in that area too, but I haven’t found a subject that I want to do at the moment. I did three films back to back, I did “His Big White Self,” which overlapped onto “Ghosts,” and then “Ghosts” ran into “Battle for Haditha,” so I kind of need to just pause I think and work out what direction I’ll push it in the future.
CS: I was bummed that I missed “Ghosts” at Sundance, but I assumed it would get released later in the year, though it’s never been released here. What happened with that?
Broomfield: That was a very tough film. It seems to be very tough here, because 80% of the film is in Mandarin-Chinese and it deals with something that happens in England, this disaster that happened in Morecambe Bay where a lot of Chinese drowned, but it deals with a bigger issue which is really there’s a lot of illegal immigrants coming to the United States.
CS: It seems like a topic that would be of interest due to the number of Asian-Americans in our country.
Broomfield: Yeah, and again it has Chinese-American immigrants in it, many of whom have left children behind. You have this thing where people of working age come and work in places like the States or England, and leave their kids behind. It’s the story of one woman who left a kid behind and was working in England, and then we see her going back to China at the end, and of course her kid doesn’t know who she is anymore, this is in reality.
CS: It sort of mixes the two together.
Broomfield: It mixes them together and it was an incredible experience doing the film. I knew it wasn’t going to be a particularly commercial idea.
CS: Maybe, but I can’t imagine you necessarily make films for that reason or that most filmmakers make films for that reason.
Broomfield: I made the film because I believed in it, and I thought it was worthwhile making.
CS: Exactly, once a filmmaker starts worrying about whether a film is commercial, it ends up taking away from their ability to make the movies they may want to make.
Broomfield: Yeah, although I think we probably need to become a bit worried about it.