Aileen Wournos: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer

| January 2, 2004

Nick Broomfield has been accused of dumbing-down recently, his documentaries–particularly his films about Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur–receiving a number of critical reviews suggesting he was too interested in celebrity and that his gonzo style of filmmaking had become too overbearing and loose. In returning to the case of Aileen Wournos, subject of his 1992 Aileen Wournos: the Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield has set those critics straight, and then some–and this work has been recognised, the film winning ‘Best Documentary’ at the Tribeca film festival. This impassioned, important documentary making at its very best, and should get much more coverage than it, sadly, will actually receive.
In the early 90s Broomfield travelled to Florida to make a film about the case of Aileen Wournos, accused of the murder of seven men on a Florida highway over the course of a year or so. Female serial killers are unusual and the media attention given them seemingly outweighs that assigned to men because of the fact that it is suggested women must be fundamentally evil to kill, whilst men are more prone to it. Women who kill are witches, fascinating but repellent at the same time. Myra Hindley has never been forgiven and she has become a cultural totem of evil, but the death of Ian Brady–arguably much more important in the Moors murders–would arouse much less media interest, for instance. Wournos suffered, it is alleged, for this gender bias. Her biography had salacious details–a lesbian past, accusations of incest and abuse–and her story was huge. So huge, in fact, that police officers, a lawyer and her adoptive mother were all implied in a conspiracy to sell her story to Hollywood during the trial.
In 2002 Broomfield was subpoenaed to appear at Wournos’ final appeal, and his film submitted as evidence. The film Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer follows the legal process of Wournos’ execution and questions the society that created her. Interviewing her childhood friends, past lovers, family and legal counsel, the film is deeply involved in the process of understanding her guilt (as Broomfield is in her trial), but fundamentally confused about how to do this. Broomfield suggests that American society is sickening, a horrific state in which the abused and the needy end up living in the woods for years taking drugs and selling themselves. It is a moving and a difficult film, harrowing but angering, too.
The film’s clear logic is that the violence, drugs and social disability of Aileen’s life contributed to her horrific descent, without a safety net, into a world of hitchhiking prostitution. According to this thesis, because of the lack of support and care she came into contact with horrific men (her first victim, who she originally alleged had anally raped her, had several previous convictions for sexual offences). Her initial defence had been self-defence, and she argued to her death that the police had known about her and had ‘let her kill again’ to encourage media interest. Indeed, she argued that the only reason she was called a serial killer was ‘the number’ which allowed the police to sell the rights to a higher bidder and increase the media witchhunt against her. It seems, however, a simplistic notion that she simply ‘lost her mind’ after the first killing. By its own reasoning, the film lacks sharpness on this point. She killed another six men within 12 months of the first, and pled self-defence for them all. She is either a serial murderer or insane, but the film can’t quite work out whether it is arguing for innate natural madness or socially conditioned insanity. Either way, it is obvious–as Broomfield points out in his briefing to the press at the end–that Wournos was not in full possession of her mind in the years before her execution. Whatever her mental state during the murders, she was evidently insane. Broomfield’s distanced persona and gravitas is crucial at this point–he simply allows the audience to make their own mind up. I would suggest that all those sitting in the theatre with me when I saw this disagreed with Jeb Bush’s official 15-minute psychological evaluation of her mental fitness to be executed (although, much like the version of her guilt or lack thereof, this is highly contingent and subjective).
You still have those seven victims, but, it feels at the end of this film, that Wournos herself becomes number eight. It is clear by the end of the film that Wournos wants to die because of the horrific pressures of Death Row. She has been consistently ill-served by the law, her family, the community and the media. The film indicts the entire weird, warped society of the United States as complicit somehow in her case, and in the horrific consequences of her actions.

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