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‘Domestic Violence’

Frederick Wiseman‘s documentary “Domestic Violence” airs on PBS Tuesday and Wednesday.

It just was announced he won the $1 million Dan David Prize along with photojournalist James Nachtwey who was the subject of the Oscar nominated documentary “War Photographer”. Wiseman will be speaking at UC Berkeley in early April and Pacific Film Archives will screen many of his films March 31 – April 14.

Both nights start with shots of Tampa, Florida followed by police responding to a domestic violence call. The first focuses on the Spring, the largest and busiest domestic violence shelter in Florida. The second part follows a number of cases in the domestic violence courts in Tampa.

The opening night is the stronger segment. I first watched it last spring at the Roxie in San Francisco, and it was one of the best films I saw last year. Unfortunately, the documentary only played briefly in New York and a few other cities (though not in Tampa). It is important it will reach a much larger audience on PBS, but it is even more powerful in a theater.

Wiseman lets each scene play out. It takes a little while to get used to since we’re conditioned to the quick cuts of “reality” television. But the stories are so much more compelling, the rhythm soon seems natural. We learn about domestic violence by following the director of the shelter lead a tour, watching intake interviews, group therapy, classes for the children of the women, and a staff meeting. Over the course of more than three hours, it seems we really get to know some of the women and workers.

He explains this in an interview in Salon:

Could you talk about your editing style? A lot of movies and television shows today use lots of fast cuts. You seem to be in a different camp.

I think I have an obligation, to the people who have consented to be in the film, to make a film that is fair to their experience. The editing of my films is a long and selective process. I do feel that when I cut a sequence, I have an obligation to the people who are in it, to cut it so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time, in the original event. I don’t try and cut it to meet the standards of a producer or a network or a television show.

My principal obligation is to make as good a movie as I can, and try to fairly represent the complexity of what went on. That means that sometimes the films are long, it means that sometimes the scenes are long. I don’t think it’s fair just to cut to the most sensational part of the scene, and then cut to another sensational scene, because that means that there’s absolutely no context. In each scene, I have an obligation to provide the context and, from my point of view, the result is more dramatic than when you just cut to the most sensational aspect. The so-called juicy part of the scene is more comprehensible and more powerful because the context is clear.

The second night is shorter, but more repetitive. Cases are followed in the courtrooms of several different judges, but there isn’t the variety of experience the first film has. It does give a sense of how difficult the issues are particularly when there is such a heavy caseload.

Both show how often sexual abuse or assualt are part of domestic violence (and the cycle of violence). While media will rightly focus on a sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church or at the Air Force Academy, they don’t cover the everyday abuse (usually by family members) enough. Or the underfunded prevention programs, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. And there isn’t enough investigation of how the legal system deals with domestic and sexual violence.

Photojournalist Donna Ferrato has done similar work on domestic violence in her book “Living with the Enemy.” MaryAnn De Leo and Jon Alpert‘s ”Rape: Cries From the Heartland” which was shown on HBO in 1991 was shot at a rape crisis center in Tennessee and is one of the few other documentaries I’ve seen which examines these issues in-depth.

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