Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's new documentary was screened during the 2003 Times London film Festival - a year after the execution of its eponymous subject - convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Elizabeth Griffin talked with the directors at the festival about what Broomfield describes as "The most personal and most disturbing film I have made."
In 1992 Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill made a documentary about a woman described by the tabloid media as 'America's first female serial killer.' Their film - Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer - exposed the inadequacy of her legal representation alongside a grotesque media side-show in which Wuornos' acquaintances, her lawyer, and a number of investigating police officers, attempted to cash in on the case by selling her story. Wuornos, a prostitute who claimed that she had killed in self-defence, was convicted of the murders of seven men and sentenced to death. Twelve years on, Broomfield and Churchill return to the case with Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Taking last year's failed final appeal as a starting point, the film is structured around Broomfield's interviews with Aileen (as her execution date approaches) and with the people who knew her during a deeply troubled childhood in Michigan. Asked why he decided to revisit the subject of Aileen after such a long time, Broomfield relates how compulsion (he was called to appear at her final state appeal) gave way to curiosity: "I was being subpoenaed, and then she changed her plea and said she'd killed in cold blood. And then she contradicted her own witnesses and fired her lawyers. And all those things, I guess, raised questions, so we got sort of pulled back into the case." Co-director Churchill expands: "There was also the fact that the witnesses were talking about what a tragic life she'd had and it was very interesting and wasn't anything we knew anything about, so we felt it would be good to follow up on.I think that this was a film that called out to be made and was very compelling." Just as the directors' focus had shifted, so, they believe, had Aileen's motivations changed: "I think in the first film she didn't know anything, and I think it was kind of a miracle that we got the interview, although she was talking to more people then. I think in the second one she in a sense wanted her story to be told, she wanted her last interview to happen, she wanted to put across more of her view of the world, and that's, you know, what happened"(Broomfield).
Whilst both The Selling of a Serial Killer and Life and Death of a Serial Killer highlight the exploitation of Aileen Wuornos for book and movie deals, were Broomfield and Churchill ever concerned that their own films might face the same accusation?: "I think she wanted to use this film as a means of telling her story, so I think that's probably why it's different. She wasn't talking to anyone else by the end, she was only talking to us, so I guess she liked the first film, or had had good reports about the first film, and felt that it was through us that she could put her point of view across"(Broomfield). That Broomfield returned to Wuornos' case as a consequence of his first film being called into evidence at her final appeal certainly gives the works an immediacy and sense of purpose. Broomfield (himself law graduate) had filmed Aileen's lawyer ('Doctor Legal') smoking a joint on his way to advise his client, and it was hoped that this would show Aileen's convictions to be unsafe - in the eyes of the judge, it did not. Broomfield believes that Aileen had been turned into a media monster and that by this time her execution had become a deeply political issue: "There was a lot of hostility to her in Florida, obviously, because I think who gets executed is firstly a political act. I think that being a lesbian, and in a way breaking that Christian view of what a woman should be - you know women aren't supposed to kill people either - in a way there was a lot more hostility to her than to Ted Bundy. And I think that because the DA and the governor are all political appointees, often the decision to execute or not, is a political decision. So maybe that's one of the reasons - because of that enormous hostility - that people were so keen to have her executed, and it became such a big issue."
Indeed, the Alieen who emerges throughout the film is very different from the one-dimensional hate-figure presented in the right-wing press. As the interviews go on we discover that as well as being occasionally contradictory and abusive, Aileen can also be complex and engaging with a great force of personality. When asked if he felt in control of the interviews, Broomfield admits "Well not really, because she had such a strong agenda of her own that she wanted to talk about. So often I think it was a question of letting her speak and then saying "If I could just ask you something?" and trying to move her into a different subject." Broomfield's indulgence is both a prerequisite of filming - despite the filmmaker's shrewdness and experience, Aileen had learned to play the game and often dictates the subjects to be discussed - and an interesting interview stance through which he makes a silent statement about her mental vulnerability. His final interview with Aileen (the very last she gave) takes place shortly after a mental examination has established her fitness for execution. Aileen's distress and wild paranoia show this 'scientific' procedure to be a sham, and Broomfield is dumfounded and frustrated that she has passed the test. By allowing Aileen to express her bizarre police conspiracy theories, and belief that she is being controlled by radio waves, Broomfield effectively demonstrates the cruelty of a system which executes the insane. His statement to news crews on the day of Aileen's execution is simple and powerful: "Today we are executing someone who is mad."
The prison interviews which form the backbone of the documentary, and Broomfield's unusually passive technique are not, however, wholly unproblematic. Broomfeild's belief that Aileen's change of plea - from self-defence to premeditated murder - is a definite, if desperate, attempt to accelerate her sentence, is one which jars somewhat with his efforts to demonstrate her irrational mental state. Also striking is the way in which Aileen and Broomfield appear to be playing games with each other, she withdrawing her plea of self-defence only to claim 'off camera' (surely she knows him better than that) to Broomfield (who is still recording) that she had indeed been attacked prior to the killings.
The crimes Alieen was convicted of were terrible, and the events that surrounded them, her motivations and the extent of her accountability may now never be known. What Broomfield and Churchill's film does establish is an impression of the abuse and neglect Aileen suffered in childhood (both from relatives, her local community and also the wider society), her exploitation as a young hitchhiking prostitute, and later, her woefully flawed legal representation. A devastating picture of a damaged and chaotic life is built up through the testimony of people who knew Aileen in her youth. We learn of the abuse she was subjected to, of how she became pregnant at fourteen (possibly by the town paedophile), and of the next two years spent living in the Michigan woods at the end of her street, after her father (later to be imprisoned for child molestation) threw her out of the house. Through these shocking accounts Broomfield and Churchill make it impossible for the worthlessness instilled in Aileen from early childhood to be separated from the crimes she committed in later life in the simplistic way much of the American media had done.
Earlier this year Philippe Martinez' disappointing satire Citizen Verdict considered what might happen if murder cases and executions were neatly packaged for a Florida TV audience - all with the approval of a Republican governor who wishes to boost his profile. The media circus which surrounded Aileen's Wuornos' trial and execution (complete with governor Jeb Bush's seal on her death warrant) makes the 'this could happen' premise of Citizen Verdict seem either naive, or perhaps far more perceptive than it first appeared. Broomfield and Churchill show that to all intents and purposes Aileen's Wuornos' life, and death, had indeed become a public and political commodity.
In two of their best known films - Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac - Broomfield and Churchill attempt to dissect and make sense of the lead-up to the killings of their celebrity subjects, after the event. And in both cases, many questions are left unanswered. In Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, the filmmakers are first-hand witnesses to the events as they slowly and painfully unfold, but if anything, the horror and frustrating senselessness of Aileen's death is even greater. Broomfield reflects on this in his director's statement: "I knew Aileen over the course of 12 years, and the barbaric nature of her death had a profound effect on me. It was one film I didn't choose to make. I came to it as a witness and ended up attending an execution. The violence of taking a life remains the same whether it is legally sanctioned or not. It introduces murder into our vocabulary of behaviour."
Dir: Nick Broomfield , Joan Churchill, 2003, UK/USA, 92 mins