For his first full-length feature, Nick Broomfield travelled to the Nevada desert with his camerawoman Sandi Sissel, to the world’s only brothel-with-an-airstrip. The Chicken Ranch sat in the middle of nowhere, serving passing truckers and groups of Japanese tourists who would be shipped in from Las Vegas using the Ranch’s own private plane; Broomfield first heard of this establishment in an aeronautical magazine (or so he claims!). So Broomfield and Sissel lived in the brothel – little more than a series of trailers jammed together – for two months, filming the girls, their clients and the owners in arrestingly intimate style.
On the DVD audio commentary, Broomfield reveals that the girls were initially highly reluctant to be filmed going about their business, fearing that the result would purely focus on the sleazy aspects if their lives. But you wouldn’t know it from the natural way they behave in front of the camera. It is also strange for Broomfield himself to be almost completely absent from the film – apart from a few glimpses of him and his trusty boom-mike reflected in the many mirrors of the brothel, he takes an observational back seat.
There seems to be quite a high turnover of girls at the Chicken Ranch – some are seen only briefly, never to reappear. But Broomfield builds up a vivid cast of characters amongst the regulars. There’s Connie, a feisty redhead who hates sleazy owner Walter and whose surly attitude means she is not picked by clients as often as the other girls. Mandy is a busty blonde who has no trouble getting picked, JJ is a deeply unhappy newcomer to the game, while Claudia, like many of the girls, has a lifetime of abuse behind her. There's also Fran, the madame (or maid as she's called here), a motherly 40-something who treats the girls like they were her kids and is often placed in a difficult position by the controlling Walter.
Life within the Chicken Ranch is a weird, depressing experience. Every girl has her own room but despite the spectacular desert landscape outside they rarely venture out of the brothel. The girls must remain 'on call' throughout the day, and are summoned by a bell whenever the ranch has customers – they line up, introduce themselves and wait to be selected. Unsurprisingly, most of the customers didn't want to be filmed, but those who did are what you'd expect – good ol' boy truckers, nervous older men and a pack of bemused Japanese businessmen.
Because Broomfield enforces relatively little editorial influence upon the film, Chicken Ranch is a compulsive but often uncomfortable watch. The girls talk about their sexual techniques like they were swapping recipes, and although this entirely-legal brothel was one of the best paying and safest in the State, this was nevertheless a seedy and soul-destroying world that these young women had found themselves in. But there are some very funny moments too – the drunken redneck who seems convinced that he should get some action for $20 (the minimum is $60), three girls being awoken by Fran in the early hours to trudge out sleepily to offer their wares to visiting clients, and Walter announcing at a Thanksgiving dinner: "This may be a brothel but I don't think there's anyone here who doesn't believe in God." And for a film with such salacious subject matter, there is no nudity – and certainly no sex – affording these poor women some dignity at least.
[Chicken Ranch is part of Metrodome's DVD box set Nick Broomfield: Documenting Icons, which collects together six of Broomfield's lesser-known films, including Soldier Girls, Tracking Down Maggie and the controversial Fetishes]
Pioneering British documentary-maker known for both the relentless pursuit of his subjects and his eagerness to put himself in his films. Broomfield's earliest films were observational documentaries covering such subjects as prostitution (Chicken Ranch), army life (Soldier Girls), and comedienne Lily Tomlin (Lily Tomlin). 1988's Driving Me Crazy introduced the style of film for which Broomfield would become famous, as he detailed his own failed attempts to film a musical.
Subsequent movies include two studies of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, the Spalding Gray monologue Monster in a Box, controversial Fetishes and a pair of documentaries on musical themes, Kurt & Courtney and the rap-exposé Biggie and Tupac. Broomfield has also made two forays into fictional film-making, with 1989's woeful thriller Diamond Skulls and 2006's true life immigration drama Ghosts. He returned to a true murder theme with Tales of the Grim Sleeper.