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Nick and Aileen
A region 2 DVD review of AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER by Slarek
 

This disk contains both of Nick Broomfield's documentaries on Aileen Wuornos. The first film, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, his reviewed here.


In 1992, English documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield was asked to direct a series of films about serial killers, something he had little real interest in doing. When looking through the supplied material, however, he found one case that commanded his attention, one that appeared to turn the serial killer cliché on its head – instead of a male killer murdering female prostitutes, a female prostitute named Aileen Wuornos had killed her male clients. Broomfield contacted the woman's lawyer and was told that for $25,000 an interview could be arranged. For Broomfield, this was the kicking off point for Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a documentary that was to be less about Wuornos than the exploitation of her story by almost everyone involved in the case. Broomfield's eventual interview with Wuornos did more than give his film it's needed climactic footage, it marked the start of a relationship between him and Wuornos that – kept alive over the years through witten correspondence – bordered on friendship.

Broomfield had no plans to make this follow-up film, and was in the middle of shooting his documentary Biggie and Tupac when one morning he was served with a subpoena to appear at Wuornos's pre-execution trial. Suspecting he was going to be asked for his opinion as someone who knew Wuornos, he was surprised when he was questioned on the editing techniques used in his earlier film in an attempt to discredit the evidence it presented. As Broomfield watched this new aspect of the story unfold he witnessed something else, a change in Wuornos that went beyond the physical – after twelve years of protesting that she was acting in self defence, she was now openly claiming that there were no attempts to assault her and that all of the killings were motivated by robbery. On top of that she was objecting to her own defence witnesses, a move that was effectively sabotaging her trail. As Broomfield had the requisite video and sound recording equipment for the Biggie and Tupac shoot, he took it and long-time collaborator Joan Churchill with him and began work on what proved to be the concluding half of an extraordinary story.

If the first film was primarily concerned with the exploitation of Wuornos's story, then Life and Death of a Serial Killer is more focused on Wuornos the person and getting at the truth behind her motivition to kill. The only one in a position to provide this information is, of course, Wuornos herself, and in her first meeting with Broomfield, whom she greets with a warmly enthusiastic "Hi, Nick!" she seems to have a single intention: to go on record to set things right with God before going to her death by admitting that she actually killed all seven men in cold blood. But from the start Broomfield suspects that something isn't right. Twelve years on Death Row in a room without sunlight have left Wuornos looking old beyond her years and have dramatically cranked up her paranoia – and as the film progresses she expounds, sometimes manically, on her conviction that she was being watched by the police even before she committed the first crime, that they let her continue in order to trade on the more lucrative Serial Killer label, and that they have for years been bombarding her with sonic waves. Initially quite lucid, her mood can switch in an instant, her face contorting into a mask of ferocious rage, then returning to its normal, sometimes openly friendly self.

Broomfield becomes increasingly convinced that the real reason that Wuornos has changed her plea is to accelerate an end to the her increaingly intollerable Death Row existence and seemingly never-ending stream of pointless court appearances. Aileen, he surmises, just wants to die, a belief she herself does little to discourage. The moral problem, from Broomfield's viewpoint, is that she has actually lost her mind and as a result should not be subject to execution. The Christian Right (an oxymoron if ever there was one) inevitably viewed Wuornos's change of heart as a final admission of guilt by an irredeemably evil woman, and the process of killing her is kicked off with some speed by non other than Jeb Bush (George Dubya's brother), who is up for re-election on a law-and-order and execution ticket, which Wuornos's death would be perfectly timed to publicise.

The ghost of the first film soon starts to rear its head – politicians are still using Wuornos to promote their personal and professional agendas and the facts of the case remain as uncertain as ever. This is reflected in Broomfield and Churchill's extensive use of extracts from the first film for background, some of which is considerably expanded on here. Watched side-by-side with the earlier film, as this DVD release allows, this may seem a little like space filling, but ten years separated the production of the two films and as made-for-TV works there would be no guarantees that the audience for the second film would have even seen the first, or have easy access to it for recall purposes.

Broomfield's personal journey once again invites audience identification and involvement. More information is provided on Aileen's early background and we get to meet her closest friend Dawn, who shows us some of Aileen's extraordinary artwork (which can only be properly seen when held up to the light). She also claims forcefully that "gays weren't invented" until about 15 years ago, to which Broomfield responds that it was at British public schools that the invention took place, adding as an afterthought, "us and the Greeks." We also meet Aileen's childhood friends Michelle – who takes us on a censored tour of the neighbourhood of their youth and talks in court about the brutality of Aileen's grandfather – and Dennis, who as a child used to live in the woods with Aileen after she was thrown out of her home. We learn of Aileen's early pregnancy, her marriage to the elderly Lewis Fell (which ended when she assaulted him with his own walking stick), and (albeit fleetingly) of the local peadophile who was rumoured to be the father of Aileen's child. Broomfield also tracks down Aileen's natural mother, a sad and frail woman who requests that he ask her daughter for her forgiveness, something the still bitter Wuornos angrily dismisses with a furious "She can go to hell!" We also see Broomfield re-introduce himself to Steve Glazer, whose career as a lawyer effectively stuttered to a halt when the first film was shown – as he shakes Broomfield's hand with a disbelieving half-smile, he says to him wearily, "Fuck you. Fuck you and your documentary. Don't talk to me."

Though more fact-filled than the first film, it is again Broomfield's personal journey that proves the most compelling aspect. This is particularly true of his encounters with Aileen, who always greets him affectionately by his first name and after one particularly difficult but revealing encounter tells Broomfield as she leaves: "I'll always remember you and love you. I love you so much." It is during this interview that the most revealing conversation is recorded – between interview takes while Churchill is reloading the camera, Aileen talks to Broomfield in a hushed whisper and effectively confirms his suspicions about her plea change. Unbeknown to her, Churchill has finished changing tapes and is filming the still visible Broomfield and recording the whole thing.

This leads to a genuinely extraordinary final interview with Wuornos, recorded the night before her execution. She is kept shackled and some distance from Broomfield, who just can not forget that he is first and foremost a documentary film-maker, and despite their long-standing friendship, Aileen's increasingly angry protestations, and the fact that this is the last time he will see her alive, he continues to press her for confirmation of her earlier whisperings. Inevitably Aileen loses her rag, but in the middle of her seemingly rambling anger repeats a proclamation from her first trail about society condemning a raped woman to death, and in that moment kicks against her own more recent rejection of the self-defence claim. As she is being led away in a state of fury, Broomfield calls across to her, almost pleadingly, "Aileen! I'm sorry!" It's a testament to our involvement in with both subject and filmmaker that this is an almost heartbreaking moment.

By then it is hard to know where to stand on Aileen's story, as the twelve years on Death Row in virtual isolation have clearly driven her mad, which although clear to an even a half-aware viewer, is something the three psychiatrists appointed by good old Jeb Bush took just fifteen minutes to refute, allowing this conveniently timed execution to go ahead. Though the end is inevitable, Broomfield uses the media circus that has gathered outside of the prison to give interviews to reporters and put across his view that the state has knowingly executed a woman who has lost her mind.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer is a sad indictment of a system that seems to deal with injustice using a process that is riddled with its own set of injustices. Aileen Wuornos was tried, endlessly re-tried and eventually executed, and nothing seems to really have been learned from the case. Instead of trying to understand this woman and her crimes, many of those in authority and connected to her personally have merely seeked to profit from it, and you are left with the sense that Aileen's final paranoid ramblings about police and political corruption, though absurd in their scale and illogical in their detail, may still have had an essence of truth.

sound and vision

Unlike the first film, which was filmed on 16mm, Life and Death of a Serial Killer was shot on DV-CAM, a popular, relatively low-cost format for TV production (this was shot for TV screening). The video look is immediately evident, but the transfer itself is clean, crisp and boasts a good level of detail. Contrast is pretty much spot on throughout. The included extracts from the first film tend to stand out because of their 16mm origin (though have been well graded to mix with the new footage) and included TV and police video footage is of varying quality. Some TV footage appears to have been shot directly off the screen rather than transferred to tape. A few compression artefacts are occasionally visible, but this can be the result of shooting on DV in low light conditions rather than a fault with the transfer.

For the large part a functional stereo mix – most of the interview material is front and centre, as it should be, but music and some sound is spread wider. The mix is clear throughout and serves its purpose perfectly well.

extra features

Part of a two-film disk from Optimum, the extras for both films are detailed in my review of Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Click here to be taken to that review.

Again there is an Introduction to the Film by Broomfield, at 3 minutes slightly longer than the intro to the first film and gives a useful lead-in to the film for first-timers. As with the first film, much of this is repeated in the main interview with the director, and some in the film itself.

What I do feel compelled to comment on, specifically in regard this film, is not so much was is included but what is missing. The 20 minute Interview With Nick Broomfield gives a great deal of information about how Broomfield worked with Wuornos, how specific scenes were shot and handled, how he feels about the death penalty, his working relationship with Joan Churchill, and the state of television documentary today. When the film was first screened on Channel 4 in the UK, however, it was followed by a short interview with Broomfield in which he went into some detail on what was going on off camera in that final interview with Wuornos. What the audience did not see was that as the interview progressed, more and more guards came in and stood behind Broomfield and Churchill, so that although we see Wuornos seated alone with two guards, what she is seeing is not just Broomfield and Churchill, but a small army of the very people who would soon lead her to her death. Knowing this puts a very different slant on that interview, and it's a shame that information is not included here.

summary

As a whole, both Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer make for compelling but ultimately sad viewing. The second film, especially, sees the barrier between film-maker and subject almost completely torn down, as Broomfield and his first film become part of the evidence in a trial that is one the second film's key components. Broomfield's personal journey becomes a quest for truth that we can't help but become involved in, and even in her wildest moments, Wuornos remains a fascinating and oddly sympathetic figure. That Wuornos's story as told here is more complex and ultimately more gripping than it comes across in the acclaimed feature film of her story, Monster, is a testament to Wuornos herself, the almost inevitable superiority of the documentary format in communicating the reality of a situation, and Broomfield's persistent yet unusually personal approach.

Despite gripes I may have had with some Optimum releases in the past – the cropped picture on Lawless Heart, for example, I'll happily admit that they have put together a good package here. In the US you have to buy the films separately and they are almost completely devoid of extras (you can also buy the second film in a double pack with Monster) – to get both films plus a 20 minute interview with the engaging Broomfield for a standard single disk price is something of a bargain. Highly recommended.

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

UK/USA 2003 .
89 mins
directors .
Nick Broomfield
Joan Churchill

DVD details
region 2.
video
4:3
sound
Dolby Digital 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras

Introduction by Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield interview
distributor
Optimum
review posted
21 June 2004

related reviews
Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
Monster

See all Slarek's reviews