A recipient of the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award, Nick Broomfield has made over 30 films in a 40 year career while helping to pioneer the Direct Cinema movement of the 1980s, a style he returns to in his scintillating exposé of the former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin in his latest film Sarah Palin: You Betcha. Here he tells i-D about his pursuit of the Barracuda across America…
You’re associated with the Direct Cinema movement of the 1980s and 1990s. How do you access the legacy of that movement today? There’s a confusion about documentary now. There’s a lot of reality TV which is actually set up and contrived from the beginning. People have got used to looking at that, and it’s had a very bad effect on documentary. The beauty of documentary is it’s supposed to be unstructured and evolve as the film unfolds.
One of the problems of documentary right now is people tend to write elaborate scripts before the film is shot. It’s like a drama constructed by a scriptwriter before the documentary is made; I feel that’s the realm of fiction. I like the rawness of cinéma vérité films – when they’re like a roller coaster ride of trying to work out who the subject really is. I think there’s very little appreciation of how hard it is to make those, because they’re not set-up.
Sarah Palin became one of the most reported-on people in the world when John McCain picked her as his running mate. What did you uncover in the course of making the film that wasn’t already in the public realm? We wanted to make a film about a small town and the people that had grown up with her and were palling around with her in her formative years. It was almost a historical story about her. I felt we would learn more about her as a person by studying what she was like in office as a mayor, and what her school friends said about her; people that had been on the basketball team with her and had spent time in Church with her. I thought that would tell us things we didn’t know from her mainstream political career.
The film follows your attempts to gain an interview with Palin. If she called you up today, what questions would you ask her? All of us have grown up with school friends and friends from her past, and one of the wonderful things about that experience is that people grow up very differently, and you often find that people have very different views of the world to what you do. But what surprised me most about Sarah Palin was that she had fallen out with a lot of people she had gone to school with from the age of 11 and didn’t talk to them ever again. If someone did something she disapproved of, they would be cut off for ever more. I found that to be a very defining thing about her, because it occurred again and again and again. The Deputy Mayor fell out with her. Her campaign organiser was never talked to again after an argument. I would want to ask her about why she’s so decisive about ending those long friendships, and while she feels it is necessary to do that.
What kind of significance do you think Sarah Palin has in the Republican party now? I think backstage she still has a lot of influence, and the values she has are embodied by the rightwing of the Republican party. Mitt Romney was at one point pro-abortion and legislated for a radical form of healthcare; they don’t think he’s a real Republican. I think the rank and file of the Republican party look to people like Sarah Palin to somehow allow them to remain pure. So I think that gives people like Sarah Palin more influence than probably they deserve.
Sarah Palin: You Betcha is out now on DVD…
Text: Tom Seymour