▶︎ My Father and Me is broadcast on BBC Two on Saturday 20 March at 9:45pm, then streams on BBC iPlayer.
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Nick Broomfield is known for his audacity – for breaking rules and for confronting difficult, at times even dangerous, subjects. As far as rules go, it used to be considered mandatory that anyone directing a documentary should keep themselves discreetly behind the camera: the classic ‘fly on the wall’ approach. Broomfield crashed though that barrier in the 1980s, starting with Chicken Ranch (1983), a study of a legalised brothel in Nevada, and going on to pioneer a form of ‘self-reflective’ documentary where the actual making of the film becomes as much its subject as the ostensible subject itself.
This approach was taken to the extreme in Tracking Down Maggie (1994), in which Broomfield’s attempts to gain an audience with Margaret Thatcher are repeatedly frustrated by her quasi-regal entourage of minders. Since he never does ‘track her down’, what we get is a film tracing his failure to do so. This up-front approach has been widely adopted by younger documentarians, among them Morgan Spurlock, Molly Dineen and Michael Moore.
As for Broomfield’s dangerous subjects, they’ve included the South African neo-Nazis led by Eugene Terre’Blanche (The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, 1991), rap mogul Suge Knight (Biggie and Tupac, 2002) (“There was a menace about him. You knew he was capable of great acts of violence, and he would enjoy it, you know”) and even Thatcher herself. While making that film, Broomfield recalls, “we started interviewing all these guys who were part of the secret services, buying arms. They were highly organised: if they thought you knew too much they would have killed you… When we were in Dallas, we were aware we were being followed – we all ended up sleeping in the same room.”
After so much menace, one might expect that making a film about his own deceased father and the relationship between the two of them – the epitome of the self-reflective, as it were – could seem like a comfortable, almost cosy project. Anything but, it seems. “I’ve never done anything more difficult,” Broomfield said recently. “It was a very emotional experience. I still can’t actually sit through it without weeping a couple of times.”
Still, there’s little of this anguish evident in the film. My Father and Me paints an affectionate, even at times gently teasing portrait of the industrial photographer Maurice Broomfield, featuring many of his strikingly framed photos of British factories and their products intended to show “the beauty and might of post-war industrial Britain”. Often, we’re told, he would gain special permission to shoot at night, when the geometric elegance of a giant cogwheel or a nest of steel tubes could be enhanced by dramatic, almost Hollywoodised lighting. And the factory workers themselves are frequently shown as isolated, quasi-heroic figures – or else as part of a lively social life organised in and around the factory, where many of them worked their whole lives.
Maurice, a humanist and pacifist, abhorred conflict. His son thrives on it: “My moment was born out of chaos and confusion”. By the time Nick began making films, the British factories that Maurice had glorified were in decline and starting to close down, their communities fragmented and destroyed. To the perfectionist Maurice, his son’s work was sloppy and needlessly confrontational. The gulf between their outlooks is neatly summed up by an early photo Nick took of a donkey staring dejectedly through a wire fence. He should have eliminated the fence, his father told him, as it made the picture look “sad”. To Nick, that was “the whole point”.
Nick’s attitude was strongly influenced by his mother Sonja, “the one I’d always talked to”, a Czech-Jewish refugee from a staunchly left-wing family. It was a marriage that didn’t sit well with Maurice’s working-class, Derby-based parents; his mother Daisy, we’re told by one of her neighbours, “didn’t like the Continent”. We also meet Nick’s genial maternal grandfather, whom he calls ‘Googo’, and Sonja’s brother, ‘Uncle Chuck’, a cameraman who worked with David Attenborough and whose household included a honey bear and a flying squirrel. And for all their later differences, Nick’s memories of growing up with Maurice are full of affection, recalling idyllic camping holidays in the south of France.
This affection was regained later in Maurice’s life when, as Nick recalls, “we started looking at what we really liked about each other.” After Sonja died from cancer, Maurice went into a decline, but was rescued in his mid-70s by meeting Suzy, who became his second wife. The pair travelled extensively together until his death at age 94. By then, his photographs were being reassessed and acclaimed. My Father and Me may have reduced its director to tears, but so honest and heartwarming a film is unlikely to have that effect on its audiences.
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Originally published: 19 March 2021