The Trauma of ‘Private Violence’

Private Violence, Sundance Film Festival 2014

Written by Leigh Kolb.

Gloria Steinem said,

“The most dangerous place for a woman statistically speaking is not in the street. It’s in her own home. She’s most likely to be attacked by a man with whom she lives. It’s the trauma of it we’re just beginning to realize.”

This “private,” not public, violence, is the subject of the documentary Private Violence, which premiers Oct. 21 on HBO. (Steinem is an executive producer of the film.) Cynthia Hill directs the documentary, which focuses in on Kit Gruelle, an advocate and survivor, and Deanna Walters, a survivor who is navigating the court system. Other women’s stories are woven throughout, but the individual stories of these women offer a stunning, jarring inside look on what goes on behind closed doors and how “Why didn’t she just leave?” is not a question we should ever ask.

“It’s not your job to fix broken men.”

Statistics surrounding domestic violence in the US are stunning, even to those who are immersed in following women’s issues in the news–perhaps because the news media too often keeps these stories of assault, stalking, and murder in the private sphere. During the University of Missouri – Columbia’s Journalism School and True/False Film Festival collaboration, Based on a True Story: The Intersection of Documentary Film and Journalism last February, Hill and Gruelle participated in a panel discussion entitled “Telling Stories About Trauma.” Gruelle  pointed out that in one of the cases she was advocating for, the local news refused to air graphic photos of a victim, but later that night, “the channel ran TV dramas about violence against women for profit–we can deal with the fantasy.”

The reality is this:

One in four women (22.3 percent) has been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner
One in six women (15.2 percent) has been stalked during her lifetime
Thirty percent of female homicide victims are murdered by their intimate partners
Private Violence does not, as some social-issue documentaries do, continuously slam us in the face with these statistics. Instead, the film takes us inside, takes us behind closed doors, to come face-to-face with victims, families, and advocates. The news media may not show us photos of brutalized women, but Private Violence does. We hear–and see–Walters, as she tries to escape and get some kind of justice (and how difficult it is). In an incredible opening, Candy tries to escape from William (who didn’t even care if they used the scene). The intimate, heartbreaking look into these women’s lives turns a mirror onto a society that has historically been far too complacent about violence against women.
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During the aforementioned panel discussion, Hill said that she was approached by Gruelle, who wanted to work on a project about the history of domestic violence advocacy work. “Her intention wasn’t to be the subject of the film,” Hill said. “I wanted to turn my camera in her direction… she already had access and intimacy. A historical film became a cinema verité film.” Hill’s decision to turn the camera on Gruelle was brilliant. Gruelle is a passionate advocate who works hard and speaks loudly about domestic violence in our culture. Hill invited her to speak up during the panel discussion, and Gruelle pointed out that “It’s never just about the abusers. It’s about patriarchal systems that are quick to blame her.”
[caption id="attachment_15734" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Advocate Kit Gruelle. Advocate Kit Gruelle.[/caption]
The crux of Gruelle’s message to audiences, to not ask “Why doesn’t she just leave?” is amplified by focusing on these individuals’ stories. It was difficult to hear that when the film was shown at the True/False Film Festival, Candy had gone back to William. Seeing faces somehow makes that knee-jerk reaction of “Just leave!” creep up, even if we know better. “Leaving an abuser isn’t an event,” Gruelle said. “It’s a process.” The process isn’t incredibly fulfilling to watch in Private Violence, nor should it be. The system fails women far too often, and Private Violence shows that in painful detail.
[caption id="attachment_15731" align="aligncenter" width="300"]"Why doesn't she just leave?" Why doesn’t she just leave?”[/caption]
Before the film screened at True/False (to an overflowing, sold-out crowd), Hill told the audience that the ultimate goal is “to make women and children safe in their own homes.” Because we know that as it stands, they are not.
It is absolutely clear that throughout Private Violence, Hill allowed Gruelle to take her into a world that she felt compelled to share with the public. That trust, that “wide-eyed curiosity” (as Gruelle said of Hill’s directing technique), created a documentary that not only pays homage to the strength and tragedy of women whose lives are torn apart by male partner violence, but also serves as a wake-up call that the system–law enforcement, news media, medical professionals, local and federal court systems–are not serving victims the way they should. Private Violence is a public testament to the horror of domestic assault.
During the Q&A after the screening, Walters appeared on stage with Hill and Gruelle. She said that her participation in the film–and how she laid herself bare–is “my way of helping people.” Gruelle pleaded with the crowd to “go back to your communities and pop the hood,” ensuring that victims got the justice they deserved (but first we must keep their stories out of the shadows).
[caption id="attachment_15739" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Gruelle, left, and Watson. Kit Gruelle, left, and Deanna Walters.[/caption]
Hill’s direction is remarkable in its effortlessness; she knows to follow, to absorb, to tell the story. When she was asked during the panel discussion about her decision to include upsetting audio in the film, she said, “Well, this is what happens. People need to know what happens.”
Private Violence shows what does–and doesn’t–happen behind closed doors and within a system we’re taught to trust. May audiences be moved to lift the veil in their own communities, to listen to women’s stories, and to effect change in a patriarchal system that is far too brutal to its female citizens.
Private Violence airs on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern on Oct. 20. In 2015, Private Violence will be available for educational distribution through Women Make Movies.

Recommended reading: Interview with Private Violence Director Cynthia Hill, by Danielle Lurie at Filmmaker Magazine; A Brief History of Sexual Violence Activism in the U.S., by Caroline Heldman and Baillee Brown at Ms. blog; Till Death Do Us Part, by Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff at The Post and Courier; Prosecutors Claim South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground Law Doesn’t Apply to Domestic Violence Survivors at Ms. blog; Why You Need to Watch this HBO Film on Domestic Abuse, by Hilary White at Pop Sugar; Sundance Film Review: Private Violence, by Dennis Harvey at Variety
[caption id="attachment_15732" align="aligncenter" width="227"]Cynthia Hill, left, and Kit Gruelle. Cynthia Hill, left, and Kit Gruelle.[/caption]

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Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature, and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.