TV UK, 13 May

Are murderers made in trailer parks?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Nick Broomfield’s films have always starred Nick Broomfield as much as anyone else, and explored the process of filmmaking as much as any putative subject. But Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Channel 4 on Tuesday) sees Broomfield and his work more tightly woven into the story than ever before.

Aileen is a follow-up to Aileen Wuornos: the Selling of a Serial Killer (1992), which was itself about the way the media influence the events they describe. Wournos killed seven men, and the first film was about the media scramble for the story of America’s first female serial killer, and alleged police involvement in selling rights to Hollywood before Wournos was even convicted. More than 10 years on, Broomfield found himself called as a witness at Wournos’ final appeal, to testify to the incompetence of her original lawyer, comically known as Steve.

Understandably, the filmmaker took the opportunity to make a sequel. While Broomfield clearly saw Aileen as an indictment of the death penalty in general, and the American system in particular, and Aileen wanted to use the film to get across her message about a police conspiracy to let her keep killing in order to sell the film rights, it was documentary itself that was first to go on trial.

Wournos’ new lawyer had submitted Broomfield’s first film because of a scene showing Steve the lawyer smoking several joints of cannabis on the way to trial, but the eagle-eyed DA had noticed that Steve is seen wearing two different shirts on the same trip, and challenged Broomfield on the discrepancy. Broomfield conceded that editing is an integral part of the filmmaking process, but denied pasting together sections from different journeys, and suggested that perhaps Steve had changed his shirt. Touché.

The technical composition of a film is indeed a fascinating subject, but more interesting still is the genesis of the story, the end to which technical composition is but the means. Having decided to make his second film about Aileen an indictment of the death penalty (thereby making himself the hero), Broomfield seemed to take his lead from Aileen’s new lawyer, in portraying her as a victim of circumstance. Much to Aileen’s annoyance, he visited her childhood home in Michigan, and built up a picture of incest, abuse and neglect that made her later crimes seem inevitable.

In doing so, Broomfield was drawing on well-established prejudices about ‘trailer trash’, the white rural and suburban poor. This is particularly interesting because a similar process in going on in relation to the scandal about abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Private Lynndie England, who is pictured humiliating captured Iraqis, grew up in a West Virginia trailer park, and for many it is no surprise that someone like that should reveal a degenerate streak.

Like Aileen, England has an alternative story involving those in authority. The difference (apart from the fact that England is not insane) is that England’s story resonates with a wider constituency of people who are suspicious of the US military, and predisposed (with some reason) to believe that they would officially sanction the abuse of prisoners.

Unlike the Daily Mirror photos of abuse by British soldiers, there is no doubt over the authenticity of the Abu Ghraib pictures, but the argument will continue to rage, because in news as in documentary, the pictures never tell the whole story.

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