Sunday 12 July 2020

1,001 Films: "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" (1992)

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer is a key film in the Nick Broomfield filmography, marking the midpoint between the stories of social injustice the documentarist first turned his camera on and his later investigations into latter-day American celebrity. Aileen "Lee" Wuornos was a rarity: a serial killer who a) wasn't male and b) was a sex worker who murdered men (seven, at the final count) rather than the other way around. That she committed at least the first of these crimes in self-defence was a detail that got buried amid the sensation-seeking media carnival that sprung up in the wake of her arrest. Firstly, her lesbian lover turned witness for the prosecution; then Wuornos employed a bearded, rotund, frustrated rock star advertised on TV as "Dr. Legal" as her lawyer; meanwhile her adoptive, born-again mother was convincing her to plead guilty while touting exclusive interviews with the accused to reporters for a fee of $25,000. Set against this maelstrom of exploitation, such headlines in the British tabloids as "My Sex Romps with Kinky Mankiller!" - yes, there was an exclamation mark - began to appear almost sensitive.

What makes it grip so as a documentary is that Broomfield must have realised, fairly early on in the film's genesis, how what should have been an off-camera drama about a filmmaker being denied access to his subject was rich with metaphors for different forms of pimping and prostitution, and the right and wrong ways to make a movie based on actual events. Wuornos spends much of the film's duration wrestling with the knowledge the police involved in her investigation were negotiating with her lover not just for evidence but a stake in the movie rights for this miserable life story, and that some institute somewhere or other had put in a bid to preserve her brain for scientific research; both literally and figuratively, everyone wanted a piece of this woman. Broomfield's usual blithe Brit-abroad humour soon drains away: there's something desperately sad in the way he has to tail low-lifes around dead ends to get at the truth of these matters. And yet, up until the filmmaker finally snaps on camera an hour in, the film reserves overt judgement on even those who seem capable of the most despicable behaviour. A sequel, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, followed in 2003, revisiting several of the individuals introduced here, while questioning America's New Testament fascination with capital punishment; and all those movie deals resulted in the same year's Wuornos biopic Monster (directed by Wonder Woman's Patty Jenkins, with Charlize Theron as Wuornos), which couldn't - and didn't - get close to the desperation and pain at the heart of this story. The footage of Wuornos in court here - not a monster but a person filled with righteous anger at the manipulation going on around her - remains electric, chilling, unforgettable.

Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer is available to stream via Amazon Prime.

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