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Death and the maiden

This DVD set contains both of Nick Broomfield's documentaries on Aileen Wuornos. The second film, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, his reviewed here.

Aileen Wuornos was something of a gift to tabloid newspaper writers. Dubbed the first female serial killer, she worked as a prostitute, killed only men (all of them clients), and was at the time of her arrest in a serious relationship with another woman. I recently brought up the second of Broomfield's documentaries on Wuornos (reviewed here) in a media class and asked if anyone had heard of her. One particularly tabloid-educated student piped up, "Oh yeah, she's that man-hating, murdering lesbian bitch-queen from hell." After admonishing him for such an appallingly narrow-minded and frankly moronic evaluation, I suggested he try for the job of headline writer for The Sun. But that's pretty much the image of Wuornos that's been promoted by the media both here and in the US, for whom sensationalism is a stock in trade and the truth too often something that gets in the way of a juicy story. Right from the start, Nick Broomfield's compelling documentary challenges this view, and in the process of investigating what Broomfield himself admits was an interesting inversion of the usual story of male serial killer murdering female prostitutes, the nuts and bolts of getting to the truth became a subject that in itself proved worthy of study.

Some background for the uninitiated. Aileen – known more commonly as Lee – Wuornos, a prostitute who picked up her clients by hitch-hiking the highways, was arrested in January 1991 at the Last Resort biker bar in Harbor Oaks, Florida, for the murder of seven men over a one year period. Aileen ultimately admitted to six of the killings, but claimed that she had acted in self-defence and that her first victim, Richard Mallory, had brutally raped her prior to his death, but no prior record of violence on Mallory's part was produced by police to substantiate these claims. Detectives helped build the case against Aileen by persuading her lover, Tyria Moore, to phone her in jail and trick her into confessing, and to later testify against her against her in court. Aileen's case was taken up by lawyer and wannabe rock musician Steve Glazer, and she was later legally adopted by born-again Christian Arlene Pralle and her husband, who persuaded her to "come clean" on three of the killings and to enter a plea of No Contest. Wuornos was sentenced to death for each of the crimes, and by the time Broomfield became involved she was already on Death Row.

Those familiar with Broomfield's style will quickly find themselves at home here. Since events that took place during the shooting unexpectedly involved him in the story of films such as Chicken Ranch (1983) and Driving Me Crazy (1988), Broomfield's documentaries have almost always been about two things – the subject itself and the process of recording it. This technique can be seen at work just ten minutes into Aileen when Broomfield visits the biker bar in which Wuornos was arrested – most films would simply cut to the pre-arranged interview with the owner, but here the camera follows Broomfield, decked out with his trademark microphone, recorder and headphones, as he apprehensively approaches the bar ("This should be fun," he nervously murmurs), enters unannounced, and just starts asking patrons where he might find his man. Having done so, he is pointed in the direction of someone known as The Human Bomb, who makes his living blowing himself up for the amusement of onlookers. Broomfield typically does not include the eventual post-explosion interview – if, indeed, it even took place – just his initial approach and the man's request that he be given time to walk off the effects of his recent combustion.

This softly-softly approach is also used by fellow Englishman Louis Theroux and famed Michigan documentarist Michael Moore, both of whom share with Broomfield an easy-going and disarmingly friendly initial approach, but who are not afraid to ask the difficult questions when they arise. If anything use their gentle natures as a bit of a stealth weapon to catch the unwary off-guard when they need to. Broomfield is particularly good at this, coming across as a curious but polite ex-public schoolboy (which he is, of course) who doesn't really want to upset anyone, but once he has hold of something his determination to see it through can put him in direct conflict with those he is interviewing. This is most vividly illustrated later in the film when Broomfield, frustrated by his repeated failure to secure the promised interview with Wuornos and the belief that he is being given the run-around by Pralle and Glazer, returns to Pralle's ranch and loses his rag at her over her non-co-operation, while she repeatedly asks him to switch off the camera and leave.

This approach can be both engaging and illuminating, as rarely do we get to see just what a documentary film-maker has to go through to get the footage we too often take for granted. Partly as a result, we begin to identify with Broomfield as a character in his own drama, and to share his frustration at having to drive for seven hours for a promised interview with Wuornos, only to have her refuse to talk to him because she has nothing appropriate to wear. Similarly, when he and his crew are arrested for sparking a security alert by circling the prison perimeter in their car, we get a very real sense both of the level of prison security and sometimes fragile relationship between the film-maker and the officials on whose co-operation they often rely. This does have a dual knock-on effect later – one of the reasons Wuornos finally agrees to meet Broomfield is because she is impressed by the trouble he has caused, but he is prevented from obtaining their second interview because the authorities subsequently ban him and his team from re-entering the prison.

The down side of this approach is that, with a sizeable portion of the film given over to Broomfield's activities, there is correspondingly less screen time spent investigating and talking about Aileen Wuornos. This has led a to a number of reviewers inaccurately describing the film as unfocussed, and suggesting that Broomfield appears to be just bumbling around with his crew in search of the story rather than telling it. All of which seems to me to be missing the point. Given that the film's principal interest is the exploitation of the Wuornos case by all and sundry for personal, political or monetary gain (the clue is in the title, guys), Broomfield's own involvement in that process, particularly his extensive negotiations with Glazer and Pralle, is an essential element of the investigation. The scene in which the two ask Broomfield to cough up $25,000 for an interview in which Pralle, he is promised, will tell the fascinating story of how she and Wuornos met, is a typical example – Broomfield films the negotiations, then remarks in voice-over that "at this stage it seemed cheaper to buy in some local TV footage." The montage that follows supplies the required background information, but the journey there has provided an insight into the film-makers' decision-making process, and clearly points us in the direction the film will subsequently head.

As negotiations with Glazer and Pralle become increasingly problematic, Broomfield's point about the exploitation of Wournos's case pretty much makes itself, and as the film progresses and the police and politicians are also revealed to be capitalising on her notoriety, there is an increasing sense that in spite of the brutal nature of her crimes, Wuornos is the only one here not neck-deep in sleaze. Hauled into yet another court hearing, she uses the opportunity to accuse politicians of exploiting her case to boost their re-election campaigns, and to attack the TV movie Overkill, the first result of the behind-the-scenes dealing to make a film of her story, dismissing it angrily as "pure fiction." Everyone has their own agenda here – even the one retired cop who is willing to talk about the movie deals struck by some of his ex-colleagues has his own book contract under way.

By the time Broomfield actually gets his interview with Wuornos, she has taken on an almost mythical status. Having by this point been seen, heard and discussed only through news footage, video recordings of court appearances and the testimony of others, when she cheerfully walks in to her interview with Broomfield there is a sense that you are meeting a celebrity of some renown. It's a moment charged with genuine excitement, emphasised by the sheer hard work taken to get this far and an identification with Broomfield that has made us feel almost like part of his crew. Wuornos proves a compelling and enigmatic interviewee, and – most appropriate to the thrust of the film – uses much of her time on camera to attack the wheeling and dealing that has gone on between the police and the movie company with whom they have been secretly negotiating.

By now it is hard not to have some sympathy for Wuornos. Her difficult childhood and hard life since aside, credibility has by then been given to her claims that she was viciously raped by her first victim Richard Mallory through the uncovering of evidence by reporter Michele Gillen that Mallory had previously spent some years in jail for a similar assault, information that was easily available to the police all along. The courtroom footage in which we listen to the recording of girlfriend Tyra – who was never charged with any crime – trick Wuornos to confessing to eavesdropping FBI agents proves a genuinely heartbreaking betrayal of trust, and it becomes clear that Wuornos was persuaded to change her plea on three of the charges not out of any real sense of guilt, or a change of heart over her claims that she was acting in self defence, but because she was pushed into doing do so by two people in whom she had laid her trust but who were clearly blinded by their own religious fanaticism. Ultimately Glazer and Pralle come across as just two more self-serving cogs in the machine of capitalistic exploitation.

Broomfield's film delivers on the promise of its title, but ultimately succeeds by involving us personally in the uncovering of the story and in Broomfield's own increasing sense of frustration and outrage. Along the way he effectively casts doubt on Wuornos's serial killer label, dispels the idea that she was nothing but a vengeful man-hater, reminds us just how coldly nasty the whole process of execution by electrocution is, and suggests that there is much more to this story than many of those who have profited from it – including the makers of the recent feature film Monster – have been willing to admit. Ultimately the film's most affecting question is whether there is any aspect of this sorry case – legal, procedural or even moral – that has been handled either appropriately or with a shred of dignity.

sound and vision

Shot on Broomfield's favoured 16mm format (the equipment is lighter and more hand-held friendly than 35mm), the transfer here is no better or worse than you'd expect – grain is evident throughout and the lack of lighting means that detail is sometimes lacking, but this all seems appropriate to the subject (since the early days of Vérité this has been part of the accepted aesthetic of such documentary work). Otherwise the transfer is fine, with good black levels and solid colour rendition. Framed at 4:3, which would be appropriate given the source material and that it was shot for TV screening.

The sound is essentially front and centre, but clear enough with no obvious flaws. This is the sort of film that most definitely does not need a surround remix.

special features

Though a single disk release, the region 2 DVD contains both this film and Broomfield's later Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, which is reviewed separately. In addition, the following extras are included:

Introduction to the film is a two minute intro by Nick Broomfield that can be skipped if required, but most definitely should be viewed at least once, as it sets the scene very well. Much of it is repeated in the Broomfield interview, detailed below.

Interview with Nick Broomfield is a 20 minute interview with Broomfield, shot at the same time as the introduction, in which he talks about the background to both documentaries. The information on both is very interesting and expands on that supplied by the films themselves. Broomfield is an engaging talker and this is a very useful extra, which I would have been happy to see even more of.

The Death Penalty is a textual feature that surprised the hell out of me by not being coldly descriptive, but actually taking a stand by detailing the inherent cruelty and ineffectiveness of the death penalty in the USA. Obviously there are going to be those who will be annoyed by this – I applaud it.

The Theatrical Trailer runs for 1 minute 30 seconds and is non-anamorphic 16:9, which frankly looks all wrong – it has clearly been cropped from the 4:3 original for theatrical presentation. It's not up to much, just one (though telling) piece of interview and some textual information.

Also non-anamorphic 16:9 is the Trailer for Monster, which gives a fair flavour of that film's qualities, as well as its over-simplification of what is clearly a more complex story. The quality of the transfer here is fine.


Now that Wuornos has been executed and a movie based on her exploits has picked up an Academy Award, Broomfield's two documentaries are essential viewing for those who have come to this case (too) late in the day. Ten years before Monster, Broomfield was presenting Wuornos not as a man-hater with an oversized gun and a callous attitude to the human race, but as a human being. Here he focused less on Wuornos herself, but on the feeding frenzy that seemed to engulf just about everyone associated with the case. It makes for compelling viewing and should be seen as an essential companion piece to Monster, especially as that film is one of the works that has resulted from the dealing that is depicted here.

Optimum have really scored here by putting both this film, the later Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and some decent supplementary material on one disk, and the combined package represents a complete work that is more troubling and more compelling than any feature film take on the subject can ever hope to be.

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer

UK 1992 .
87 mins
director .
Nick Broomfield

DVD details
region 2
Dolby Digital 2.0
Introduction by Nick Broomfield
Nick Broomfield interview
The Death Penalty text feature
Trailer for Monster

review posted
17 June 2005

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Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

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