31 March 2009

JUVENILE LIAISON I (Dir. Nick Broomfield / Joan Churchill, 1975, UK) – The failure to act

Sergeant Ray and Glen in the Prison Cell


I had always overlooked the early documentaries that Nick Broomfield made with his long time collaborator and co-director, Joan Churchill, but with the recent release of a DVD box set featuring much of his early work, it has been an eye opening experience in many different ways. Having steadily shifted to feature film making with the critically acclaimed and neo realist ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Battle for Haditha’, Broomfield will continue to be judged by his skills as formidable documentary film maker. The documentaries Broomfield initially made in the UK and then later in the US embraced the pioneering work of the American ‘direct cinema’ movement in the 1960s, imitating the techniques of observational camerawork to produce fascinating ethnographic studies of strange sub cultures. Broomfield’s performative style, regularly appearing in many of his documentaries as both an investigative journalist and purveyor of the truth continues to influence film makers like Michael Moore and Louis Theroux who seem to have modelled themselves on the Broomfield aesthetic.

Made in 1975 ‘Juvenile Liaison’ was the first documentary that Broomfield and Churchill made together and ironically enough it ended up being banned by the BFI as a result of pressure from the British police. Broomfield has been making documentaries now for little over thirty years and ‘Juvenile Liaison’ reveals the formation of a distinctive cinema verite approach. It would be fair to say that Broomfield’s early work was closer to the doctrine of the direct cinema documentary film makers like Leacock, Pennebaker and The Maysles. In ‘Juvenile Liaison’ Broomfield’s presence is rendered more or less invisible as the narrative does not rely upon interviews nor do we ever see the documentarian intervening in anyway on screen. Such principles would be challenged later by Broomfield as the documentaries he made on America culture in the 90s would be largely motivated by his persuasive presence within the frame, arguing and debating with the subjects being documented. ‘Juvenile Liaison’ seems more subjective than Broomfield’s later work as the camera is used to film events as they unfold and the minimal interference on part of the film makers means the reality being captured feels altogether more authentic.

Controversial documentaries like ‘Aileen’ and ‘Fetishes’ cannot help but reveal a level of emotional and personal involvement that certainly influences the representation of reality, distorting it so that we are faced with questions related to ideological preferences and the truth. No documentary can ever be entirely subjective in how it captures reality but the aesthetics and ideological imperatives of the cinema verite/direct cinema style come closest to making the presence of the film makers invisible, rendering the process as an unobtrusive one. ‘Juvenile Liaison’ is a study of how society fails those who need help the most. Here is a synopsis of what the documentary entails:

In 1968, juvenile liaison sections were attached to a number of local police departments to function as a kind of bridging operation between young offenders, their homes and their schools. The programme is about the day to day working of one such section, attached to the Lancashire police in Blackburn in dealing with juvenile offenders. Intended for police, probation officers, social workers and professional organisations of film makers, teachers and students.

http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/18639?view=synopsis
The BFI Film and TV Database

Broomfield follows the intimidating figure of Police Sgt. Ray who heads up the Juvenile Liaison Section in Blackburn, Lancashire, over a number of weeks and we get to see at first hand the counter productive tactics implemented by the government in an attempt to tackle the problems of juvenile behaviour. Sgt. Ray’s answer to unruly kids, many of whom are at primary school, is to bully and victimise them so that by the end of the interrogation process they feel dehumanised and worse than before. It is clear to see that such a failed social policy advocated by the government of the time refuses to come to terms with the roots and origins of such juvenile behaviour by never wanting to probe the reasons behind the emergence of such a deprived underclass of children. Unlike documentary film makers today who are far too dependent on superficial modes of address, Broomfield and Churchill never really resort to any kind of preaching or politicising, rather using their subjects as tools for wider didactic purposes. The reason why ‘Juvenile Liaison’ was banned is largely to do with the disturbing moment when Sgt. Ray decides to take an 8 year old school boy, Glen, to a prison cell so that he can get him to confess about stealing. Broomfield and Churchill shoot the confrontation in the cell using a long shot that positions Glen and Sgt. Ray in between the doorway, underlining their estrangement from one another but also suggesting how such a nightmarish scenario is likely to have the opposite effect on society. It is a cruel indictment of the systematic failings of the government to support and care for those who are products of a deeply divided and unequal British society.

Nick Broomfield on location in Jordan filming 'The Battle for Haditha'

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Broomfield in which he talks about how he felt that the documentary did in fact harm the career of Sgt. Ray:

NB: I think the only two films that I've really felt that about are, actually, funnily enough in Juvenile Liaison, I felt very bad for the sergeant and all the trouble that he got into afterwards. Sergeant Ray for example, the guy in the cell, was given to us as being the best Juvenile Liaison officer in the entire scheme, you know, and he was very highly regarded. But once the film came out, he pretty much lost his career and his job and they didn't take any of the points really that the film was making at all. And, you know, which was very unsatisfactory really. I mean I thought that there would actually be a debate about the scheme and what the scheme should be about. And, you know, the British Film Institute turned it into a debate about film aesthetics, and the police more or less just finished Sergeant Ray's career off.

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/audio/id/1136236/index.html
Nick Broomfield, The Guardian Interview, 1997, Interviewed by Derek Malcolm


Broomfield and Churchill followed up their 1975 documentary by returning to Blackburn in 1990, producing ‘Juvenile Liaison 2’. Hiring a private investigator, they managed to secure interviews with the children from 1975, examining how after fifteen years they had changed and in what ways they had been effected by the government’s failed juvenile policy. None of the children have really been able to elevate themselves out of the familiar social milieu and some are shown to have evolved into self confessed criminals. The follow up is as equally powerful and if not more poignant in it how reflects on the vacant aspirations of those who were left behind and excluded from the mainstream of British society. I doubt if Broomfield and Churchill have made anything as grim and devastating as this social document. Broomfield is by far the most accomplished documentary film maker of the last thirty years. I just hope one day he makes a documentary about George W Bush and Tony Blair in the way that he stalked Maggie Thatcher.

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