In Praise of Nick Broomfield

Being three and a half thousand miles away from the UK seems as nought when I tune in to BBC World News, here in Ghana, and catch the weather forecast and the politics. It is true that the further you are away from the culture that helped define you, the more you see how trivialising and twisted much of it is. The pet obsessions of the media are like fast food; insubstantial, unhealthy and sprayed with a garish gloss. No longer is there even lip service paid by journalists to the erosion of the significance of the arts and intellectualism nor the corrosive governmental attack on the social infrastructure of families, traditional communities and society as a whole, which began with Thatcher and the miners and has continued, implacably, ever since. The gap between rich and poor grows ever greater, education for those who live outside the avaricious bubble of the middle classes, continues to degenerate and free market philosophy dominates all strategies to deal with any consequent eruptions of discontent.

It was, then, with a kind of nervous frisson of involvement that I watched Nick Broomfield being interviewed on BBC World Hard Talk. Broomfield has been around such a long time and is associated with making documentaries about the have-nots, the picaresque, extreme individuals such as serial killers or the bestiality of troops in Iraq, (the latter through the reconstruction of events where key participants in a massacre are played by ex-soldiers, relatives of Iraqi families who have died and so on).

He was heavily quizzed in the interview about his depiction of events. Was it lurid sensationalism? Was he riding, commercially, on his own radical bandwagon? Was he conspiring to deceive those who had suffered or who had caused suffering, in order to advance his own world view and reputation? Was he ignoring the good things that people did in order to skew his images to bolster the case he was making?

Throughout the interview he stuck, doggedly, to his theme. He makes his films as truthfully as he can. He tries to elicit plural perspectives of events and allow the viewer to make his or her own judgment. Everyone, from the serial killer to the soldier to the child dying in a famine is a victim of some kind and, even though we may not offer sympathy for some of the acts they might commit, we do better to try and understand how they came into these arenas of obscenity and death, rather than execute or imprison them in disgusted and vengeful ignorance. We must help societies to progress towards forms of understanding which might eliminate many of the root causes of extreme and awful human behaviour. Unfortunately, we have to learn this lesson over and over again. There will always be those in the political arena who put expediency and an appeal to the populist desire for eye-for-an-eye revenge and punishment, above any long term desire to fashion, from our troubles, a liberal and caring society. The Nick Broomfields of this world fight that fight. We become more enlightened and savvy because of what they do.

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