Overview: Presented during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, PRIVATE VIOLENCE emphasizes the stigma domestic violence still carries for its victims, telling the stories of two women: Deanna, a victim turned survivor, and Kit Gruelle, a survivor who advocates for justice on behalf of Deanna and other battered women. Highlighting the complex, frustrating realities of the abuse women suffer every day at the hands of intimate partners, as well as the difficulties of prosecuting domestic violence cases, the timely documentary offers a gripping story.
It is a fact: the most dangerous place for women in America is their own home. One in four women experiences violence there at the hands of an abusive husband or boyfriend every day. Moreover, 1,700 American women are murdered every year when they leave or try to leave abusive relationships, and 48% of the women killed in domestic violence homicides are murdered after they leave or are in the process of leaving. Women in abusive relationships face the grim reality that leaving is a dangerous prospect. Not only are they choosing to uproot their lives, and the lives of their children, but leaving may result in the direst consequences. This documentary examines the vicious cycle via Deanna’s story. PRIVATE VIOLENCE debuted on HBO Monday, OCT. 20 from 9:00-10:30pm ET/PT. It also had a special debut in New York City as the following clip attests.
Expectations: This is another of those incidents where I did not immerse myself totally in the preliminary information offered on this documentary. I didn’t want to read of Deanna’s ordeal I wanted to hear it in her own words. It makes more of an impact that way and I am all about documentaries making an impact. Domestic violence leaves its impact as well and is a prevalent problem that only seems to escalate or at least gets more media attention nowadays. As the statistics above state we are talking more than just high profile cases of getting cold cocked in elevators.
A range of feelings should take hold of me and any viewer with a soul though anger and sadness should prevail. It is best not to anticipate it or over analyze it, but to just let the hour and a half documentary take its course. I’ll allow, of course, a trailer to set the tone. What will follow is my reaction.
Gut Reaction: I’m certainly glad I didn’t read the multi-paragraph Press Release because my impulse to watch this piece without it was dead on. After all the majority of everyone else who is going to watch this documentary do so without that background information. The message this piece offers via the story, the testimony and the photographs is the most effective way to address the issue. This documentary is rough in nature but not in style.
I was a bit misdirected on the scope of this piece. While it does explain Deanna’s trauma this documentary is really seen through the work load of Kit Gruelle. The camera follows here more than anyone as she shows us office work, officer training, court cases, interviews, follow-ups and the frustrating and stressful task of assisting victims of domestic violence. She is a hardworking advocate and stalwart defender and is a great person fighting for the cause. Deanna’s story is just one of the cases Kit had on her plate. It was due, however, to Deanna’s bravery and determination that she opened up to let the cameras record her story as a prime example of how domestic violence goes down and how to persevere and survive. It is a strong documentary just touching on the issue and offering a few cases and people at the heart of it.
Bonus: Here is HBO’s interview with director Cynthia Hill (pictured at right).
HBO: What brought you to the topic, and in particular, the advocate Kit Gruelle?
Cynthia Hill: Kit Gruelle (pictured below left) was working on the history of the battered women’s movement. She met me through some friends, and knowing that I was a filmmaker asked if I would be interested in helping her tackle that project. The more time I spent with her, the more that I understood what advocacy work was about, the more compelled I was by her story. I felt that the advocacy story had not been told before. We as a society — six months ago, I could say this and it was definitely true — we felt that we got it. We were all against domestic violence. But we were still asking these questions, “Why didn’t she leave?” and saying the same things, “If he hit me, I would be out of there.” We weren’t really understanding the complexity of it, the power dynamics. How the other person, if there’s a power imbalance, slowly eats away at you and who you are. By the time the hitting comes, you’ve already been destroyed as a person. As Kit says, the physical violence itself is the exclamation point.
HBO: You mention the events of the past few months — the altercation between Ray Rice and his now wife, Janay Palmer. Has it affected the response to the documentary?
CH: It’s changed tremendously. One, primarily journalists are interested in a way that they weren’t before. They thought it was a tired topic, and I’m sure it’ll be again. Hopefully we can make the needle move before it becomes old news again. I think the general public is seeing it in a way they haven’t before. You can’t unsee that footage [in the elevator] if you watched it. That’s in your head. I think now people are curious and concerned.
HBO: Was it hard getting Kit to cooperate? There’s a moment in her study, where she seems startled by the filming.
CH: Say you’re making an issue-oriented film; you have to have people convey that story through. Being able to live it through the advocate and victims, I thought would let us penetrate those boundaries that we have. You’re invested in their stories and their lives. You want to know how the story ends. (With Kit, I knew for a long time that’s what I wanted to do. She was just a great vehicle for us to tell the story: the access she had to victims, law enforcement and judicial officials, and the way that she gets it. I didn’t want to make a film where you have talking heads explaining the issues. She is the subject and talking head all in one. Initially when I started filming, I told her I wasn’t filming her, I was filming everyone else. She played along with that for a while, until finally, she said, “I know what you’re doing.” It took a while for her to feel comfortable, and one reason was because she had never told her story publicly in that kind of forum before. It was easy for her to share that info 1 on 1, but the idea this could become public knowledge was scary for her. Knowing that sharing that story was going to serve a greater purpose was when we made that turn.
HBO: How did you decide to focus on Deanna Walters (pictured) story?
CH: Well one, just the horrific nature of it. It also had documentation that we were able to show. And there was a story unfolding. We were fortunate that it ends on a positive note — for this kind of subject matter, I was happy that it ended on this hopeful note. You don’t want the audience to leave feeling defeated. You want them to leave feeling that there’s something we can do. This can get better and will get better, if we work together to make it happen.
HBO: How much time elapsed with Deanna’s case? Was it hard for her to cope as it worked its way through the system?
CH: We met her in the beginning of 2009 and stopped filming with her after three-and-a-half, four years. Initially she didn’t think anything would happen, so for her the length of time wasn’t so bad. Just knowing something happening and that people were taking the case seriously… It could have turned so differently for her.
HBO: Can you discuss the recurring motif of Kit’s newspaper clippings about violence against women? We see her clipping them and pinning them up?
CH: Kit travels around with a big bag of these articles. For her, it plays such a huge role in her daily life just knowing what’s going on and how women are being affected, and also, being able to understand what the headlines mean. They’ll say “estranged ex-husband,” “estranged boyfriend,” “ex-boyfriend,” and she’ll school me: See? They left. For her, its being on top of it and understanding how we see this crime and how the media reports the crime. I don’t have statistics [in the documentary] so the headlines are replacing that information. Kit’s always telling me, don’t believe the statistics. They’re horrible, and she’s like, “They’re way worse.”
HBO: Kit is a survivor who became an advocate, and we learn Deanna is training to work with the FBI. Is a future related to law enforcement a common trajectory for survivors?
CH: I think there are a lot of women out there that once they have gone through this, it leaves such a huge imprint and kind of defines them. Being able to make something positive come out of it, and allow them to take control of it is important for them. For sure Kit and for sure Deanna, I see both of them as taking this thing that has been so horrific but then channeling it help other women. It’s really inspiring.
In Conclusion: I was surprisingly conflicted by the time PRIVATE VIOLENCE concluded. I stated that I thought anger and sadness would take hold, but that is not what I felt. The stories and images are raw and terrible; the daunting tasks of keeping after the issue are exhausting and the misperceptions of it being the victims fault, etc. are disheartening, but the overall feeling at the end is the empowerment and positive feedback Kit and her like leave us with. They are fighting the good fight and victims are getting saved and moving on with life. Maybe, that is a deceiving slant to this documentary or, maybe, I am in the minority feeling this way; though I did include the director’s interview above partially to validate that my feelings were shared by her. Either way, PRIVATE VIOLENCE certainly proves that the perceptions need to change; the laws need to change; that people like Kit Gruelle cannot give up the fight and victims need to find help just like Deanna did.
Next Week: On Monday, 10.27 HBO debuts MR. DYNAMITE: THE RISE OF JAMES BROWN at 9:00pm. Director Alex Gibney focuses on the legendary “hardest working man in show business.”