I never knew that Nick Broomfield was Jewish. Turns out, neither did he, not til he was in his 20s.
The confession comes in his new personal memoir film My Father and Me, which I had the honour of introducing and hosting on its UK premiere the other night, at the JW3 as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. And you don’t get much more Jewish than that.
Known as the man behind seminal 80s and 90s docs about subjects such as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Biggie and Tupac, serial killer Alieen Wournos and Hollywood Madame Heidi Fleiss, Nick spoke movingly and emotionally about discovering his Jewish roots when researching this latest film. His mother was Jewish but as a Czech refugee from the Nazis, she and her family – even the highly influential grandfather Gogo, who helped liberate Belsen – never spoke about it, and Nick was actually brought up a Quaker.
But, he told me, he recently traced his DNA and found he was 52 per cent Jewish, so it has come as a total shock to him. He’s still reeling, not even sure what to do with this news. Have a bar mitzvah party, I told him.
Joking aside, the new film isn’t really about Nick’s Jewishness. Indeed, and I suggested this to him, there’s still a whole film to be done about it. But this one is quite lovely anyway, an exploration of Nick’s relationship with his late father Maurice, who is now being recognised as the greatest industrial photographer of post-War Britain. He’s got an exhibition at the V&A next year and Nick has done much to help re-assess his father’s legacy as a photographer.
There was a time Nick disagreed with his Dad’s romanticised vision of Britain at work, preferring instead to make docs about the hard scrabble of working class life. This film is as much about political and generational rapprochement as anything else.
Much like Nick’s recent, brilliant doc Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (about the lasting love between singer Leonard Cohen and Norwegian beauty Marianne), anyone will find a personal reflection in the work. For that one, it was remembering your own first love. Here, audiences will find themselves ruminating on their own paternal relationships. “We’ve all got fathers,” shrugged Nick modestly, before talking more deeply about his own feelings for his Dad and as a Dad – his son Barney helped shoot much of the footage here.
The film is also a look at the way Britain itself has changed, the industrial decay of the North, the class divide and, yes, even Brexit and our age-old mistrust of foreigners.
What a joy, then, near the end, to find out that I myself am in the film. Nick and Maurice were guests on my radio show with Robert Elms, gosh, it must have been over 10 years ago and Nick unearthed the audio and saw fit to use it in his film. I was tremendously chuffed. He did it, he told me, to bring the story up to the modern, to get a feeling of the warmth the story of him and his father finally generated after a few years of antagonism.
What a thrill to hear oneself in such a good film and see my name typed up on the screen. Sounds good, too, if I say so myself.
The film, which Nick is still tinkering with, feels fresh and open, raw and honest, the most personal work this brilliant documentary maker has ever done as he experiments yet further with the modern form of documentary and the power film has to connect.
It was a very special night – sparsely attended, rather sadly – but I know Nick got a real kick from the audience reaction and response. Having worried that it was too personal and that nobody would give a hoot for the story of him and his Dad, he’s knows he’s got a little gem of a film on his hands, one that can move people to tears and one that certainly pays tribute to the excellent work of his father and the spectacular, romantic glory of Britain’s industrial past.