SHEFFIELD — There’s something missing from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield‘s latest film: him.
Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me premiered yesterday evening (June 11) at Sheffield’s annual Shef Doc/Fest, which runs from June 9 to June 14. Using largely never-before-seen footage, the doc tells the story of pop singer Whitney Houston’s life with insights from those closest to her.
Prior to the screening, Broomfield sat down with English documentary filmmaker and broadcaster Louis Theroux in the packed Crucible Theater to chat about the film and his directorial process.
Throughout the conversation, Theroux pointed to significant films in Broomfield’s career, identifying moments where it’s apparent that the director isn’t afraid to step in front of the camera.
Driving Me Crazy, Biggie and Tupac, and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer all show instances where Broomfield chases his story head on, and is unafraid to get into scrapes while doing so.
But he’s notably absent from Whitney: Can I Be Me.
“What dictated your approach to this one?” inquired Theroux.
Broomfield said, initially, the BBC had hoped to have more of him in it, but he felt the material was so strong and Houston’s story was so complicated that it had to be her story.
“For a long time, the film didn’t work,” he admitted. “I was really in despair at one point because it was a ‘so what?’ kind of film.”
The decision to include Houston’s voice added another seven months to production, and removed Broomfield from the screen.
Broomfield, whose work has covered everything from serial killers to a women’s basic training camp, said he was first drawn to Houston’s story because he found her to be an amazing woman. For a long time, he said, she was the most talented and successful female artist, who was then “trashed and judged terrifically” at the end of her life.
He felt enough time had lapsed to see if there was a different story to her life than the one everyone had been telling.
A search for a broader, more intimate story is a common theme in Broomfield’s docs, Theroux noted.
The audience was shown a clip from Biggie and Tupac, which followed Broomsfield as he tried to interview an incarcerated Suge Knight, much to the chagrin of the prison warden.
“So I take from that, which is sort of a lesson about doc-making that’s quite profound, is that sometimes the interview is the least interesting part of the encounter,” said Theroux. “And it’s everything around the interview that’s the most revealing.”
Theroux said he sees Broomfield as a director who excels in widening the frame, and who has an awareness that you need to capture the whole of exchange of two individuals rather than just the interview.
“I think because we’re always dealing with reality which is often so extreme, if you have a very narrow focus on the interview or the ostensible subject, you miss out on all the best stuff,” explained Broomsfield.
It’s a style the director developed over the course of his career, which began when he borrowed a camera from the rugby team at Cardiff University years ago.
“I sort of discovered in the process, which was very torturous, that I love making films,” he said.
His first film, which ran 18-minutes, took a year and a half to edit.
“It gave me the knowledge that I wanted to make films, and I think really so many people waste so much time applying for money at the beginning and going through the torture of pitching,” he said. “Well, you know you can borrow a camera, you can go out and find out whether you really want to torture yourself for a couple of years and do a film or not. It’s an acquired taste, I think.”
Photography by David Chang