A few months ago, after the news reports about singer Chris Brown's alleged assault of then-girlfriend Rihanna - and the spate of articles about partner abuse that followed it - I decided to finally buy filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's 2-part, 6-hour series on domestic violence. This weekend, I watched Part One.
Wiseman, whose films only recently became available to the public in affordable, consumer DVD editions, is a documentary filmmaker of the "purest" tradition: His style is a sort of cinema verité taken almost to an extreme, with long takes, minimal editing (or rather, not particularly obvious editing), and a refusal to insert himself or his crew into the narrative, meaning that he eschews expository voiceovers, showy camera work, or familiar, Hollywood-style transitions. (Michael Moore he is not, although eagle-eyed viewers will catch the shadow or reflection of a boom mike from time to time.) Because of this, his films - which chronicle American institutions, industries, and, in the case of domestic violence, epidemics - can seem slow, plodding, boring or disorienting to some. (The average length of any featured vignette is between 9-13 minutes; edits are not made at expected moments.) But for those with attention, patience, and curiosity - not to mention free holiday weekends - to spare, Wiseman's films can rise to the level of "art".
Wiseman's series on domestic violence, which includes the films Domestic Violence (196 minutes, 2 discs) and Domestic Violence 2 (160 minutes, 2 discs), were filmed in the Tampa, Florida area in the late 90s; the first film focuses on a shelter for abused women and men called The Spring, and it chronicles the intake, counseling, education and other efforts made on behalf of a group of diverse clients as they confront the realities of their situations and move to triumph over them. We meet an elderly lady, married 50 years, who has finally had enough of the abuse she's endured; young mothers who have uprooted themselves and their children to escape their abusers; women on the verge of leaving the shelter to start life anew. All of them are women we might think we recognize, but, as Wiseman's film proves, we actually don't. (As film critic and producer Elvis Mitchell put it in his Times review in 2002, "We think we know these families until one woman talks about her husband's contempt for her education, which includes a doctorate. With that brief fact, dropped simply into conversation as the woman describes her life to a crisis counselor, Domestic Violence immediately shocks us out of our complacency.")
What I was most fascinated, yet wholly unsurprised by - in addition to the utter banality of the evil perpetrated against the women and children featured in the film - is the range of emotions on display by those who were abused, and those committed to helping them. There is no classic, narrative arc to their experiences: Women who have obviously been in recovery for some time seem self-possessed and confident at one moment; withdrawn and lost in another. During group therapy sessions, some clients are animated and engaged; others are bored or distracted. There are stories of physical abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse; women who confess to being abusers themselves. Moments of catharsis come and go; the way forward seems slow and, at times, frustrating... for victims and counselors alike. It is a human portrait, and the honesty of its characters makes for compelling - and for some, apparently troubling - viewing. (I do agree that the film presents partner abuse as a crime afflicting a disproportionate number of financially-troubled families. Related: the current increase in financial hardships among Americans is also leading to an increase in the severity and number of reports of domestic violence.)
I could go on - and maybe I will at a later point; after all, some of the behaviors and reactions described in the film hit close to home with regards to my own experience of a troubled relationship - but for now I'll just make like Mr. Wiseman and share some of most unforgettable moments from Domestic Violence by simply getting out of my - and the subjects' - way. Some selected clips - in the order in which they appear in the film - below.
Status update, part 1.
Status update, part 2.
Group therapy (economic control and abuse).
Group therapy (emotional control and abuse).
Related: Up Close But Too Personal? [St. Petersburg Times]
Domestic Abuse and the Global Financial Crisis [Utne]
U.S. Women's Shelters Link Rise In Abuse To Recession [Reuters]