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Career in documentaries
After more than a decade of working as a filmmaker, Broomfield altered his film style, appearing on-screen for the first time in Chicken Ranch (1983). After several arguments regarding the budget and nature of the film, he decided that he would make the documentary only if he could experiment by filming the very process of making the film—the arguments, the failed interviews and the dead-ends.
This shift in film-making style was strongly influenced by Broomfield's struggles in trying to gain distribution for his earlier documentary, Lily Tomlin, which chronicled the American comedian's one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Tomlin claimed the film was a spoiler for her show and filed suit for $7 million in damages. The documentary was shown on public television but not widely released. Eventually Broomfield's documentary was incorporated into the video release of the one-woman show.
Broomfield became known for this self-reflective film-making style: making films that were also about the making itself as well as the ostensible subject. His influence on documentary could be seen in the work of younger filmmakers of the first decade of the 21st century: according to The Guardian, Michael Moore, Louis Theroux and Morgan Spurlock each demonstrated similar styles in their recent box-office hits. Such filmmakers have been classified as Les Nouvelles Egotistes; others have likened Broomfield's work to the Gonzo journalism of American Hunter S. Thompson.
Kurt & Courtney, about American musicians Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, was selected for the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Its screening was cancelled by the festival after Love threatened to sue, as the film was released after Cobain's death. A previous film, Soldier Girls, which Broomfield co-directed with Joan Churchill, won first prize at the BAFTA Film Awards a few years previously.
In 2006, Broomfield changed his style again, adopting techniques of what he calls 'Direct Cinema': using non-actors to play themselves in dramas with a screenplay. He completed a drama called Ghosts for Channel 4; this was inspired by the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, when 23 Chinese immigrant cockle pickers drowned after being cut off by the tides. Ghosts won an award and helped raise nearly £500,000 to help the victims' families.
In Battle for Haditha (2007), Broomfield worked with ex-Marines and Iraqi refugees, as well as known actors. The film was shot sequentially, enabling the cast to build their characters as the story progressed. It also used real locations, and a very small documentary-style film crew. Although working from a detailed script, Broomfield allowed the actors to improvise and add dialogue. Broomfield based his script on research with the Marines of Kilo Company who took part in the fighting on that day, the survivors of the massacre, and the six-thousand page NCIS government report. Battle for Haditha won two international awards.
- British Academy Award (BAFTA)
- Prix Italia
- The Dupont Columbia Award for Outstanding Journalism
- The Peabody
- The Royal Television Society Award
- First Prize, Sundance Film Festival
- John Grierson Award
- Robert Flaherty Award
- The Hague Peace Prize
- The Chris Award
- The Blue Ribbon
- The California State Bar Award
- First Prize, Chicago Film Festival
- First Prize, US Film Festival
- First Prize, Festival of Mannheim
- First Prize, Festival di Popoli
- Special Jury Award, Melbourne Film Festival
- Inspiration Award, Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011