(2003) dir. Nick Broomfield, Joan Churchill
I’d never seen any of Nick Broomfield’s documentaries, though I’d been interested for a while. His films usually end up being controvertial for some reason or another. For instance, his Kurt & Courtney (1998), his documentary about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain’s death, implicated Courtney Love in some murder speculation. I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on it.
Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is Broomfield’s second film on the subject of Aileen Wuornos, the woman who became dubbed “the first female serial killer”, when she was caught for the murders of 7 men in Florida. Again, I haven’t seen Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), though it is excerpted in this film in several parts. Broomfield feels very much for Wuornos, who led an absolutely horrid life, abandoned by her mother at 6 months, having suffered from all kinds of child abuse, becoming a prostitute before she was a teenager, kicked out of her house she lived in the woods in Michigan for a couple of years, turning tricks and all this from the age of 13. Broomfield is convinced by her early testimony that her initial murder was one of self-defense, killing a man who was a convicted sexual predator when he was abusing her.
But the film takes place in the last couple years of Aileen’s life on death row in Florida (very close to where I lived). Broomfield narrates the film and plays a significant role in the film. He is very much inserting himself into the film, saddened that Wuornos’ change in attitude, she stops claiming self-defense, and shows more and more signs of schizophrenic mentality, talking about how the prison is transmitting sound waves and trying to harm her brain. The arguments that Broomfield makes, that she was a damaged person, who started her crimes in self-defense, that she had horrible legal representation, that the case became a political tool for Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign, that people tried to sell and exploit her life.
It’s quite compelling and goddam sad.
Broomfield is a bit suspect only in his strangely egoistic lead in the narrative. Maybe this is unique because of his relationship with the subject from the first film and over time. I don’t know. He also tapes her when she doesn’t think he’s taping her admitting that she was actually killing in self-defense and that she wants to die and doesn’t want to be delayed on the way to the lethal injection.
One of the saddest things to me was the brightness and immediate quality of her smile when she sees Broomfield for the first time in while. It’s a genuine happiness and friendliness that she had despite everything else. It’s really, really quite a sad story. I really don’t know if I want to see the Hollywood adaptation of this story anymore. Even in an empathetic portrayal, it still seems exploitative and awful.