When the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears debuted in February of this year, it quickly became something of a sensation. The film generated huge amounts of social media discourse, alerted millions of people to the #FreeBritney movement and urged many more to look up the meaning of conservatorship for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the clear level of interest in the subject, a string of programmes of a similar bent are now on the way, including a follow up to the NYT film and an as-yet-untitled Netflix documentary. And one of the first to appear is the BBC’s The Battle For Britney: Fans, Cash, And A Conservatorship, an hour-long programme fronted by journalist Mobeen Azhar.
Of course, Azhar had been working on his documentary long before the NYT programme aired, and he says that despite the obvious similarities, his film is actually doing something rather different with the subject. “I think broadly this documentary has a philosophical edge,” he explains to RadioTimes.com. “Because we do kind of focus on things like the star machine, and what it means to be part of the music industry. We look at the effects that almost overnight success has on an individual and how no one really teaches you how to deal with that. And the other thing is we do engage with legality a lot more than anything else I’ve seen. So I’m talking about California state law, conservatorship and the exploitation of conservatorship law.”
The film sees Azhar spend time in the US in the days leading up to Britney’s conservatorship hearing, with the journalist travelling to the star’s home town in Lousiana and speaking with several people associated with the #FreeBritney movement. It also deals with some of the more knotty issues surrounding her fandom, with Azhar discovering that while the vast majority of her fans only want to support her and find a resolution to the conservatorship issue, this can sometimes slip into toxic behaviour. Azhar says that he completely understands fandom – being a lifelong devotee of Prince himself – but concedes that sometimes a line needs to be drawn, such as when the very real concerns about Britney’s safety slip into conspiracy theory or when some fans threaten those involved.
“The problem lies whereby you’ve got, and this isn’t exclusive to Britney, it’s kind of a motif of anyone in the public space that has a very loyal or zealous fan base,” he explains. “A lot of the fans are brilliant and only have Britney’s best interests at heart, but there is a minority of fans who overstep the line.
“And so I’m talking about people that you see in the film sending death threats, telling people who know and work with Britney and count Britney as a friend that they’re going to meet them, that they’re gonna kill them. Of course, that is beyond the pale and is entirely unacceptable.”
On the whole, though, Azhar believes the fans deserve a lot of credit. It is thanks to them, after all, that people around the world are now more aware of the huge issues surrounding the exploitation of conservatorship law, which is something he hopes will continue to garner attention. “I went from thinking, is this about Britney fans being obsessive and viewing the whole issue through one particular lens, and ended up in a place where I thought, actually conservatorship laws, yes they are about celebrity and celebrity estates, but they’re also about older people,” he says, referencing an interview in the film with Catherine Falk, the daughter of former Columbo star Peter Falk – who had his own issues with conservatorship.
“They’re also about people whose mental health is not in a great place, and so conservatorship law and abuse of conservatorship law is about exploiting people who are vulnerable. And I think that is a discussion that has to happen in California and has to happen in the States and has to happen globally because I am really determined that one good thing that can come out of all this publicity is that those laws are examined and reformed.”
In addition to tackling these themes in depth, Azhar’s documentary is also notable for the scope of its interview subjects. At various points in the film, he confronts two people who had been identified as possible contributors to Britney’s much-publicised mental health issues – paparazzo Rick Mendoza, and prolific celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. Both interviews are extraordinary, but what’s particularly interesting is how differently each of them approaches the conversation. On the one hand, Mendoza fiercely denies any wrongdoing – explaining that if you’ve got a public image then your image is public property and therefore anything is fair game, whereas Hilton appears genuinely remorseful about his past actions.
This remorse came as a surprise to Azhar, who admits that he expected the interview to go very differently. “I found his take completely shocking,” he says. “I was ready for a bit of a boxing match when I went to his place. I started showing images that he put out in the Noughties where he’d kind of scrawled particular things calling Britney an unfit mother and just saying very very horrible, misogynistic things about her.
“And I went along armed with that stuff, and I thought this is gonna be like a wrestling match, because he’s not going to be in a place where he holds his hands up and says ‘yes, OK, I behaved in a way which was not acceptable.'”
But as the interview went on, Azhar explains, he noted that Hilton was genuinely having a difficult time reckoning with his actions. “I think I used a phrase in there where I said to him ‘it looks like you were bullying Britney, do you think that’s fair?’. I think he really struggled with that because there’s a real pause where you can see his mind working. And that pause in the cut is maybe six or seven seconds, but on the day he really stopped and for a few moments said, ‘Can we just stop filming for a second?’.
“It just kind of went on and on and on and he said no I’m fine, I’m fine and then he went for it and then he said, ‘Okay, yeah, I guess I did bully her.’ He said this to me. He said very clearly that he does have trouble kind of reconciling his behaviour. And I think he was genuinely sorry.”
In addition to the interviews with Mendoza and Hilton, numerous figures with in-depth knowledge of the case appear throughout the film, including probate lawyer Lisa MacCarley, who Azhar says was particularly interesting because she was one of the few people who became part of the #FreeBritney movement while already being an expert in conservatorship law. And the programme is not one-sided, either. Azhar made frequent attempts to get in touch with Spears’ former business manager Lou Taylor, who is often considered to be the architect of the conservatorship, and while she refused an interview he found her response interesting in and of itself.
“She responded to our request with this quite massive, I think, 14-page legal document,” he says. “And so that level of engagement when I went through that document, and even when I was trying to set up that interview, there was so much back and forth, in terms of ‘don’t say this, you can’t say this, make sure you don’t say this, this is an allegation from fans, make sure you challenge this’.
“So there was a real effort made from that camp, to try in my view to control the narrative. And I think we’ve really reflected that in the film, actually. Because the point is this battle is happening in a very public space, and I think the conservatorship team are really aware of that. I think they’re very aware of the bad PR for them – I don’t think there are many people in the public space that are saying they’re doing a great job.
“That’s not to say there aren’t complexities because of course, there are complexities. But I think all those insights I’m really proud of in the film, because I don’t think you have that level of depth in the articles or the other docs that I’ve seen.”
The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship arrives on BBC iPlayer on Saturday 1st May, with a BBC Two broadcast to follow on Wednesday 5th May at 9pm. See what else is on with our TV Guide and visit our dedicated Documentaries hub for more news.