Q&A with Award-Winning Documentarian Nick Broomfield
Published on September 29th, 2011 | by Daniel J. Scott2
“Sarah Palin: You Betcha!,” opening in New York and Los Angeles on September 30 (in New York, the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinema specifically), marks the latest attempt to deconstruct the persona of the former Alaska governor who, since running with John McCain in the 2008 election, has become seemingly more enigmatic the more she has been scrutinized by the media. Acclaimed British documentarian Nick Broomfield, whose first-person style influenced the likes of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, spends months in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, interviewing people close to her—or betrayed by her—on his quest to interview Palin herself. Spoiler: that interview doesn’t happen.
However, access has never stopped Broomfield before, as his films “Biggie and Tupac” and “Kurt and Courtney” attest. Since abandoning a more observational style of documentary, Broomfield has situated himself firmly at the center of his documentaries—usually in the capacity of an investigator demystifying the conspiracies behind iconic figures. In the case of Sarah Palin, there is no shortage of conspiracies to draw upon: her “faked pregnancy” of Trig, her child born with Down Syndome; her efforts to oust her state-trooper, ex-brother-in-law of his job; her “affair” with her husband’s best friend in retaliation for her husband’s own infidelity…I could go on. And most people have.
While “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!” is rife with rumors surrounding Palin’s personal and professional life—not to mention unflattering photos and footage of her—its raison d’être is to answer the question of how Sarah Palin came to be Sarah Palin. Broomfield offers a portrait of a woman who is charismatic, competitive (often ruthlessly so) and very much a product of an evangelical community.
Cinespect had the pleasure of speaking with Nick Broomfield on the phone from his New York hotel. We discussed Sarah Palin’s place in US politics, the American media, the 2012 election and more.
This film comes out at a time when Sarah Palin’s relevance as a politician is somewhat dubious. In the run-up to the 2012 election, she hasn’t announced her candidacy for the Republican Party. Some say that doing so would increase the chances of an Obama victory. So why did you feel the film was relevant to pursue?
I feel Sarah Palin very much represents the changes that have taken place in the Republican Party over the last few years, particularly the rise of the evangelical right. And I think whether it’s Governor [Rick] Perry or Michele Bachman, they all basically represent the same thing. I think that within the Republican Party, evangelicals have never had so much power. In the past, they were somewhat controlled by figures like Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham, who were then able to work with whoever was in the White House. But that’s really not the case anymore. And I think opportunists like Perry and Bachman and Palin are able to take [their supporters] wherever they’re going, in a very uncompromising way.
Through your brief run-ins with Palin, what do you think it is about her specifically that generates such enthusiasm?
I think she’s very much “One of the people.” She’s a mother, and she’s witty, and she’s a really “Gee shucks” kind of person. And I think there’s a kind of disillusionment with…I would say Ivy League or “establishment politicians.” I think there’s a feeling of distrust, of being let down. And I suppose the financial crisis hasn’t helped much. So certainly from the outside, Sarah Palin represents a breath of fresh air. In fact, of course, she’s funded by the very people that [her supporters] should be most frightened of. Namely, the Rupert Mudochs and Koch Brothers types, who are against any kind of regulation that would ensure the kind of corruption that happened in the financial markets doesn’t happen again.
Do you agree with her claims that she has been unrightfully targeted by the media?
I think the trouble is we’re looking at a very polarized country. On the one hand you have Fox News who kiss her butt and print all the lies that come out—whether it’s lies about death panels or lies about class war. It just goes on and on. I would not say there’s lying so much on the other side, on the MSNBC side. But it’s certainly polarized. And I think that when Palin or Michele Bachman come out with completely loopy statements, it’s just too tempting to chew them up and spit them out. Yes, I would say that she has been ridiculed, but probably justly.
Many people who were close to Palin declined to participate in the film for fear that you were making a “hit piece.” You deny this at one point when speaking to Palin’s father—perhaps to maintain his trust. However, your film doesn’t necessarily present Palin in a flattering light.
I find that point of view frustrating, particularly at this time. I think one of the tragic things about the liberal press is unlike the Right Wing press, they don’t really have a political reference point. They tend to look at particular issues in isolation, which is why they bend all over the place, and manage to drum up a sort of weird, false sympathy for people like Sarah Palin. Is this really fair play? Is this really an objective, balanced account? And unfortunately, I think it’s only the liberal press who are still looking at the world that way. Because the right wing press don’t even think about objectivity and balance. They’re thinking very much about a message. And I suppose the other thing is, I think a lot of people don’t get away from their computers. I mean, how many people have been to Wasilla?
How many people know what the zeitgeist is really like there? Or have talked to people in the town? They will be surprised to find that there probably is no one there other than Sarah Palin’s employment, as I found, who have really positive things to say about her. I mean, most of the people there either feel let down by her because they no longer have any kind of friendship, or they feel they’ve been exploited by her one way or another, or that she’s a terrible mother. You don’t meet people who love Sarah Palin. So it wasn’t that I didn’t include wonderfully positive statements about Sarah Palin; I couldn’t find any people who had those statements.
If access weren’t an issue and people weren’t afraid to talk, do you think you could have discovered a side of Sarah Palin that hasn’t been portrayed before?
Well, I think that in spending time in the community where she had grown up, you certainly learn more about the power of that evangelical community that she’s a product of. And I think you learn a lot more about her personality and those traits that have persisted when she was mayor and governor. In fact, I just got an email from one of the people in the community who had worked with Sarah Palin both when she was mayor and governor. [He] said that this was the first time he had seen something that consistently recorded her behavior and related it to her evangelical upbringing, and that he remembered, for example, being at the Wasilla School and being unable to get into the basketball team because he wasn’t a member of an evangelical church group called the Assembly of God. So I think it’s things like that that are very revealing not just about Sarah Palin, but about the world we live in, and what will happen if the evangelical right come to power.
Where do you see this film fitting in alongside the other profiles that have come out about Sarah Palin—Geoffrey Dunn’s “The Lies of Sarah Palin,” Joe McGuinness’s “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin?”
I think this will probably be the definitive film about Sarah Palin in terms of her biography. It’s the only piece of work that actually relates her childhood to her period as mayor and governor in a consistent way, talking to the main people she worked with. And the one thing I feel confident about is that it will stand up over time. I think it’s a solid piece of work. But I think that some people who review the film will think of it in terms of what they wished it was, or what they think it should be. And one of the problems of doing a film about somebody who is very much in the news is that [everybody] has opinions about it. But this is the film that there is. If you go to Wasilla and spend time there, whether it’s me or Geoffrey Dunn or Joe McGuinness or other people, people have come up with very similar kinds of conclusions about her and the community. I was there for quite a while, and I felt that this is the film that I found. It wasn’t the film that I necessarily set out to make with a load of preconceptions. This was the film that I discovered in the process of being there and meeting lots and lots of different people—a lot of people who frankly were too frightened to appear on film, who said stuff, and were maybe some of the people that Joe McGuinness was quoting. I mean, I obviously haven’t used people who I couldn’t get to appear on camera, which, in a community like Wasilla is a big brave move to do. It’s not like living in a big metropolitan community; it’s a teeny little community. And I’m sure there would have been a price to pay for a lot of the people who spoke out.
You described your approach as entering the project with no preconceptions and finding your way through the story. However, it must have been a huge blow when you realized you weren’t going to be able to interview Palin. I’m sure that many filmmakers would have dropped the project after coming to that realization.
If every journalist dropped every project with anybody they couldn’t get to interview, we’d be a very uninformed nation—particularly with people who have a lot to hide. Most biographies actually get their information from people who have worked with that person, not from the person themselves. I mean, what do you really think you’re going to get out of an interview with Sarah Palin that you haven’t seen before? Let me ask you that question, I’m interested.
(Pause) Honestly, I would hope to get some clarity about her end political agenda.
But she just did that interview last [week] on Fox News with Greta Van [Susteren]. Did one learn anything from it? No. But you will learn probably from people who know her intimately and have grown up with her, and have known her over a number of years and have seen her going through different periods. I mean, those people can be quite objective. If you get Sarah Palin, all you’re going to get from her is what she wants to talk about. So I don’t really understand why if you couldn’t get an interview with her that would put you off wanting to do a profile piece on her. Because I don’t think that is something that would give you much insight anyway.
At what point did you come to that realization?
Well, I think people define themselves more by the things they don’t want to talk about than the things they do. Unless somebody has entered that period in their life where they’re examining [their past]. For example, when Errol Morris made that film about [Robert] McNamara, The Fog of War, McNamara was entering a period in his life when he was reviewing it. He was in old age, and he had regrets about some of the things he’d done in Vietnam. If maybe in a few years’ time, when Sarah Palin is in her 70s or whatever, then she’ll have some reflection or maybe will show some kind of inner conscience that we haven’t seen yet. Then it would be fascinating to interview her. At the moment, she’s extremely defensive, and you’re not going to get anything from her.
As someone who lives in both Los Angeles and in London, you have a sort of outsider’s perspective to Palin’s position in American politics. What is your sense of the perception of Palin among British people and Europeans?
Well, I think we’re at a stage at this point where the 2012 election, one way or another, looks as though it’s going to be dominated by the evangelical right. I mean, the reason Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate was because she had the evangelicals behind her. And you’ve got these other characters—Michele Bachman and Rick Perry—who are also representative of the evangelical right, who seem to be the frontrunners of the Republican party. So I think there’s a lot of curiosity as to what evangelicals [are]. We don’t really have them in England. So it’s like, “Who are evangelicals? What do they believe? What kind of people are they?” It’s like an alien species. (Laughs) So there is that fascination. And I think there should be a lot more careful examination of who they are and what they are in [the United States] too, because I think they’re having a massive effect on the political system at the moment.
What do you think the consequences would be of Perry, Bachman or Palin assuming the presidency?
Well who knows? One of the main things in the American constitution is that there’s a separation of the church and state. And that’s the difference between the United States and places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the notion that the leader of the “Free World” is an evangelical Christian, and that religion is brought right into the essence of the government, is horrifying.
It’s interesting to hear you speak so candidly, because in your films you’re always careful to strike a balance between how much to impose your own views and how much to let the story be told through your interviews. How do you come to that balance?
I think you have to let the film speak, otherwise you end up with a sort of didactic polemic, which is not really filmmaking in my view. I mean, I was brought up in an almost anthropological, observational form of filmmaking. It’s very much about finding out what the people think and letting them speak, and shaping their arguments into something that hopefully makes sense, rather than using them as a mouthpiece for your own point of view. Obviously, I’ve read up on the subject and I have my own thoughts, but I think for it to really be a film that will last and is a portrait of that community and that world, it has to be reflective of that world. It can’t be reflective of me, because I’m not one of those people.
What are your plans for the film’s theatrical release?
It’s opening in about 10 cities, or maybe a bit more this weekend and next.
What effect would you like for it to have on viewers?
Without repeating myself, I think that it’s very much a portrait of an evangelical community, its values and beliefs, and very much explains how Sarah Palin is Sarah Palin, and what that set of beliefs would bring to government. Beneath all the jokes and the humor and bla bla bla, that’s really what I hope the film is about. And I think that’s what the next election will be about.
And what are your hopes for the next election?
That a lunatic doesn’t come to power. (Laughs)