Private Violence, a heart-wrenching documentary about domestic abuse, follows one advocate and survivor’s journey to improve upon the resources and support systems for abused women, as well as hold accountable the criminal justice system in the United States that allows abusers to go free.
Director Cynthia Hill explores intimate, emotional stories of women and their families as battered women’s advocate Kit Gruelle endeavours to bring them support, justice, community, friendship, and hope through her work. Composed of private interviews, court room footage, events such as police training exercises, and shocking, yet necessary, evidence from abuse cases, the film helps to portray the severity with which domestic abuse in the United States still occurs, and aims to make clear the physical and mental fallout that victims endure.
In a powerful opening scene the audience is given no warning as the films dives headlong into an ongoing case of a pregnant women seeking refuge at a women’s shelter after she and her young children were abused and threatened by her partner. Working with the woman and the local authorities the shelter staff manage to organize the arrest of the abuser, never once with the camera shying away from the tension, fear, expectation, and final overwhelming joy.
In a striking and effectual move, the director chooses to focus first on the reaction of a shelter staff member upon receiving the phone call that the abuser has been detained. The pride and relief felt by this woman is overwhelming as she brings the news that the woman in her care is now a victim-turned-survivor, and is safe. This victory is shared amongst all involved and highlights the struggle for success that these cases face.
While the plot eventually develops to follow one specific case through, the film begins by introducing many women and many abuse cases, making it difficult initially for the viewer to find something to grasp onto in the flow of the narrative. While it does reinforce the fact that abuse can and does happen in many relationships across class and race, it distracts the viewer from creating a connection with the feature. This could be in part due to Hill’s long and unstructured filming process, as she accompanied Gruelle to court rooms and shelters, when possible, for nearly a decade.
The success of this film lies in the ways in which it constructs, for the audience, the reality in which domestic abuse victims live. It is a space that reveals that domestic abuse survivors are immersed in a world that is asking the wrong questions, and Private Violence shows us in a supportive, non-invasive, non-judgemental manner what the right questions in fact are.