Filmmaker Nick Broomfield uncovers the once idle details in his latest documentary
At what point should we begin to care about people? With the daily impediment of the down-and-out asking for money, homeless men passed out on sidewalks and watching women beat their children on the subway, compassion begins to dwindle with each passing “excuse me ladies and gentlemen I hate to interrupt you, but my baby . . . ” Film has the capacity to abruptly stop the cycle of indifference, particularly films directed by Nick Broomfield, who in an anti-Errol Morris approach (boom mike in tow) uncovers with a child-like curiosity what others wouldn’t dare to touch.
Broomfield’s style, like the subjects he covers, disregard’s the well-crafted nature of his predecessors and attempts to search (not just for the facts of the case) but for what those facts reveal about trajectory; going beyond who, what, where and when to why? In Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which screened at this year’s New York Film Festival, Broomfield documents the case surrounding accused serial killer, Lonnie Franklin Jr. Franklin is currently in court proceedings following the death of ten women in South Los Angeles. Although Franklin’s lawyer permitted Broomfield to speak with his client, the Los Angeles Police Department would not permit him to do so, causing Broomfield to focus mainly on the community in which Franklin inhabited.
As Broomfield’s son Barney (who worked as the Director of Photography) told audience members during the Q&A session at Lincoln Center, the community in South Los Angeles is very tightknit, “because the police are so inept, people actually really watch out for each other.” The interwoven community allowed Broomfield not only to get information pertaining to Franklin’s case, but to unearth the racial dynamics which exist in South Central.
Margaret Prescod, a community member in South Los Angeles who founded Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, faults institutional racism for the lackluster conduct of the case which dwindled for over twenty-five years. She recalls in the film after speaking with police that the case was of little regard because “he’s only killing hookers.”
Although Franklin’s victims included women who (usually due to a drug habit) exchanged money for sex, others were either forcibly raped or killed. Only ten bodies were recovered, but Franklin is believed to have had over one hundred victims. Several of the community members interviewed by Broomfield said they never spoke to the police either out of fear or just simply never being asked. A scene of astonishing note occurs when Broomfield is able to locate several women (the police were only able to locate one) who were raped by Franklin. As each woman tearfully explains the ways in which Franklin sexually humiliated them, the power of Broomfield’s guerrilla potency comes through.
Due to Broomfield’s approach there are times in his other films, particularly Kurt & Courtney and Sarah Palin: You Betcha, when his style seems more romp than edgy, but as unscripted tales go certain stars have to be in alignment. For Broomfield this star was Pam Brooks, a tell-it-like-it-is self-described former “crack whore,” who drove the two British gents throughout South Central in search of woman who had known Franklin. In a style similar to Broomfield’s sensibilities Pam yells out of the car to several women on the street, “hey do you know Lonnie Franklin? . . . Did you see that? She ain’t got no panties on.”
As Broomfield described after the screening, “I often think the most important thing is the way you go into a community, we had somebody from the community who took us in to begin with and then we met Pam and we always had either Pam or someone who was known in that community with us in our car when we did the interviews and I think that gives us a lot of protection.”
While gliding through South Central in his black Mercedes (although he has lived in Los Angeles for several years) Broomfield does so with a foreigner’s naiveté, at one point asking if he can pet Pam’s barking pit bull. The dog charges towards him in frightening manner, but once Broomfield places his hand on the dog and begins to pet him, the once menacing pit bull melts like a puppy.
Perhaps it’s the English accent or the warmth Broomfield display’s when speaking to his subjects, but mainly it’s just his compassion which makes this film so powerful. Lonnie Franklin has been killing and raping women in South Central for over two decades and it’s not until an unassuming Brit, with a boom mike and his son (the initial DP dropped out due to fear of the South Central landscape), that the case and its’ actual victims suddenly seems to have prevalence. As Pam asserts during the film “just because they have Lonnie doesn’t mean this is over with,” the compassion which we show to a little white girl in Utah, needs to find its way to South Central—a once thriving community which is now regarded as a bunch of NHI ‘s (‘no humans involved,’ a degrading abbreviation used by police to describe crimes against ‘nonentities’ such as prostitutes, drug addicts and sex offenders).
Tales of the Grim Sleeper will premiere on HBO next year.
Broomfield did have a little help from his friends as LA Weekly writer Christine Pelisek and Suzanne Smalley from Newsweek did exhausting investigations on the case, which led to his decision to make the documentary.
One of Broomfield’s early films, Juvenile Liaison (1975), chronicles a juvenile prison project and was banned for several years.