2 min

In America

Justice is blind

WITCH HUNT. A hooker, a lesbian, a serial killer. But is Aileen Wuornos also a victim? And if so, of what? Credit: Xtra files

Aileen Wuornos has been described as “the man-hating lesbian prostitute,” “the homeless, hitchhiking hooker” and, most significantly, America’s first female serial killer.

Right away, you can tell there’s a movie here. In fact, there is a TV movie starring Jean Smart and a scandal in which investigating officers in Florida started negotiating to sell the rights to Hollywood.

The exploitation of Wuornos is exactly what documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield explored in his 1992 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer. Now he’s back with a sequel, Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Those who saw the original doc will remember how difficult it was to watch; the sequel is even harder to sit through. In Aileen: Life And Death we are reintroduced to Wuornos after she has been on death row for 12 years. She is in the final stages of the appeal process and even Broomfield is subpoenaed to testify.

After originally asserting that she killed in self-defence, Wuornos suddenly admits to killing the men in cold blood and that her only motive was robbery. This revelation, believe it or not, is hard to accept. Especially after the viewer watches Wuornos’ original graphic description of the rape and torture she suffered by her first victim and footage of her being taken away after the first trial, crying and pleading quite convincingly, that she’s innocent.

Perhaps that is the greatest accomplishment of Broomfield’s two documentaries, their ability to force the viewer to look past the labels and sensationalism and get to know the woman behind the crimes. The sequel gives us more insight into Wuornos’ background: that she was trading blowjobs for cigarettes at the age of nine, that she had sex with her brother and that by age 13, she was pregnant by a man thought to be the local town paedophile. The viewer is left conflicted, having empathy for a serial killer, and looks to Broomfield for answers.

It is implied in his film that Wuornos is only changing her story from self-defence to murder so that she will die sooner.

You see Wuornos sabotaging her own witnesses at trial and in a eerie moment, with an extreme close-up on her face, Wuornos yells at the camera, “You have to kill Aileen Wuornos because she’ll kill again.” Then, when Wuornos doesn’t know she’s being filmed, Broomfield gets her to admit that the killings really were self-defence.

Something else apparent in the sequel is the obvious deterioration in Wuornos’ mental health. After a brief stay of execution, the state psychiatrist rules after interviewing Wuornos for only 15 minutes that she is competent to be executed. How competent was she? In interviews with Broomfield the day before her execution, Wuornos speaks of “sonic pressure, crushing her head” and of plots by the prison staff to control her with radio waves.

An indictment of US justice, the doc points out that even Ted Bundy was offered life in prison and that in 1989, a court ruled that it wasn’t unconstitutional to put to death the mentally ill.

The film ends after Wuornos has been executed and her ashes scattered on a friend’s farm. As the credits role, we hear “Carnival” by Natalie Merchant, the song that Wuornos requested to be played at her wake; there is sure to be some tears.

Aileen is a difficult documentary about a woman who is the product and victim of a violent society; it asks a lot of important questions. For that reason, it should be mandatory viewing. But more realistically, it is for the brave viewer who doesn’t mind looking at the darker side of humanity.

* Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer screens at 9:30pm on Tue, Sep 9 at the Varsity 2 and at 11:45am on Thu, Sep 11 at the Uptown 3.