British documentary film-maker Nick Broomfield talks to Jeremy Kay about the challenges of making Sarah Palin - You Betcha! which world premieres in Toronto.
Nick Broomfield, the director of such films as Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, returns with a typically revealing portrait of a captivating American public figure, in this case the former Alaskan Governor and John McCain vice-Presidential running mate Sarah Palin, who is linked with a White House run in the not-too-distant future.
On the eve of the Toronto world premiere of Sarah Palin – You Betcha! [Sept 11] Broomfield talks about the difficulties of infiltrating the close-knit community of Wasilla, what he believes Palin represents to a disgruntled portion of the US electorate and how even film crews aren’t immune to the close attention of the Department Of Homeland Security.
The project shot mostly in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, in October 2010 and is funded in large part by Channel 4. However when it became clear it could become a feature, Broomfield and his producers sourced more than $30,000 from Kickstarter and brought in private investors. Cassian Elwes recently secured a US theatrical service deal through Freestyle Releasing and the film will open in the US on September 30. Content is handling international sales.
Why did you decide to turn your spotlight on Palin now?
I have done a series of films about iconic people and Sarah Palin seemed to fit in in that she was very representative of the incredible changes taking place in the US and particularly in the Republican Party over the last 10 years.
Don’t we know enough about Palin already?
It was something I didn’t know much about, so I wanted to use the film as a chance to do some catch-up myself and find out more about who she really was and what she represented and talk to people who really knew her, people who were mainly from the Republican Party. I got a real sense of who she was.
What was your strategy to infiltrate the close-knit home town of Wasilla?
We kept a very low profile and I think it paid off. The people in Wasilla and Alaska are very welcoming but very suspicious too of people wanting to do a ‘hit job’. There was a big legacy after [Palin] had been the vice-presidential candidate and they had had a lot of press there. We wanted people to believe we were doing something in-depth and worthwhile. We took it very slowly and did everything possible not to upset people and not come in with an agenda and not push it too hard.
The authorities took issue with the shoot. What happened?
Part of my crew [producer Marc Hoeferlin and head researcher Sarah Reid] got arrested by Homeland Security because of visa irregularities and got sent back to England in orange jumpsuits. But they returned to the US two weeks later.
There are plenty of testimonials from Palin’s disillusioned former associates, but precious few talking heads who come out in support of her. Why?
We tried to get hold of a lot of her old friends from school and the basketball team [she played on] but she doesn’t have a lot of friends frankly from her days [as Mayor of Wasilla] or as Governor [of Alaska]. We must have tried 15 or 30 times to get people. My overall impression is there’s a feeling in Wasilla that the Palins have moved on, so old ties in the community were kind of exhausted and people felt they had moved on to higher places and weren’t interested in their old friends. It was actually very hard to find people.
Palin herself appears on camera when you attend book signings but she doesn’t take part. Why?
We tried very patiently to get hold of her. She’s been so beaten up in the press that it didn’t have very much to do with [a fear of our] putting a foot wrong. I think if you had come with a strong recommendation from Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers [it might be different], but a straightforward journalist… I don’t think anybody would get in.
You visit Palin’s parents, Chuck and Sally Heath. Her father seems likeable enough, even though critics say he is very different behind closed doors.
We were particularly charmed by him. He’s fascinated by nature and you can understand why he was a favourite supply teacher. He’s got these huge antlers on the wall and all these fossils and tusks – he’s a bit like an Attenborough [British zoologist and broadcaster David Attenborough] for the Wild. When he talks about it he’s so enthusiastic and charming and you don’t get to know Sally, the mother, quite as well. They seemed like downhome, honest folk, so we were surprised [when we heard negative things about them.] Within that little community allegiances and loyalty is everything and if you cross that line it’s a big conflict. The Heath-Palins are very powerful within their community and it meant that people were frightened to talk and feelings were very strong about that.
One of the on-camera critics is Mike Wooten, the former State Trooper who Palin fired during her tenure as Mayor when his marriage to Palin’s sister fell apart. The incident led to the now notorious Troopergate affair. Wooten is alleged to have used a Taser on his step-son. Is he credible?
I looked into it a lot. [The Taser device] was actually a teaching kit and it delivers a minute shock. My impression of him is of someone who was adored by the kids. There were a number of people who didn’t want to talk, but one of those people who used to work as a [sports] coach with Wooten went to incredible lengths talking about what an incredible father he was and how many hours he would give each week coaching the team, etc. Wooten was definitely a womanizer, but that’s very different from being somebody who is a child abuser.
What do you think Palin represents to the American people?
I don’t think she has a very firm political position – she’s a populist. When she was Mayor she was the biggest spender they’d ever had. When she was Governor her greatest legacy was putting a massive tax on the oil companies, which was opposed by the Right. Alaskans are still benefiting from that tax. So she drifts all over the place, politically.
But the frightening thing about her at the moment is there’s a real sense of panic among the electorate over the economy. The feeling is party politicians have failed the electorate and she’s really trading on it and she’s trading off people’s fears and this polarised anti-immigrant and anti-welfare sentiment. There’s a kind of neo-Facist Right wing element in the US and that’s the power vacuum and she’s selling it right now with the sponsorship of Murdoch and the Koch brothers, who are against any form of government regulation and don’t want to pay any taxes at all.
I’m doing something a little different. I’m adapting Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist, a love story set in the Belgian Congo [around 1959-60] at the time of the Congolese independence movement leader Patrice Lamumba. We’re going to shoot it in Tanzania.