Some years ago, I asked Nick Broomfield at a public screening in London about the direction he was heading with the subject matter of his documentaries. Why had he moved from the hard-hitting social documentaries of his early career, into more frivolous, celebrity-driven topics — Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam; Biggie and Tupac and Fetishes to name but a few? His reply was it was a reflection of the changing times; that his films mirrored the society we now lived in.
If Broomfield is still trying to reflect the world we live in, it is one which recognizes that there are many more serious topics than the celebrities who continue to dominate the media. Broomfield’s last three films have experimented in form, while returning to hard-hitting social issues. The stunning drama doc Ghosts told the story of a group of illegal Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in an English bay, shedding light on the many hazards faced daily by Britain’s invisible immigrant workforce. Ghosts was followed by the Grierson Award-winning Battle for Haditha, in which he pieced together what happened in an atrocity where American soldiers gunned down 24 Iraqi civilians.
Broomfield’s latest project sees him stepping squarely into advocacy. He has directed a 20-minute documentary for Greenpeace, recounting how six Greenpeace activists took over a coal-driven power station, to protest British government plans to build a new one. They successfully brought the power station to a standstill for a day, and found their actions upheld in court by a jury who remarkably acquitted them, agreeing that the devastation such power stations bring to the environment supported the need for direct action. The film, entitled A Time Comes, is available on the Greenpeace website, and for free on DVD.
In the film, Broomfield perches directly behind the camera asking questions to the activists, who anecdotally describe the takeover of the power station and its aftermath. It’s interspersed with remarkable archive of the day itself, including police helicopter surveillance coverage. The film succeeds in humanizing the activists, showing that average people can step up to take direct action to save the earth. In an interview with the Observer (whose site also hosts the film) over the weekend, Broomfield acknowledged that this project marks his own attempt to weigh in on climate change: ‘Obviously, offering your services for a film isn’t exactly direct action, but climate change is a catastrophic situation, and people increasingly need to feel involved themselves, rather than relying on other people to do it for them,’ he told the newspaper. ‘This was my own little step in that direction.’