Taking on the subject of domestic violence in America, Cynthia Hill's film Private Violence looks through the eyes of two women: Deanna Walters, a mother who seeks justice for crimes committed against her by her estranged husband, and Kit Gruelle, an advocate who seeks justice for all women who face these issues. By telling these women's stories, Private Violence strives to change public perception of the issue in hopes to build a future free of domestic violence. Hill shared with FilmLinc her approach to exposing domestic violence through this film by allowing women to speak for themselves, rather than being reduced to statistics. Private Violence screens on Friday, June 13, opening this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, followed by a discussion with filmmaker Hill, executive producer Gloria Steinem, and subjects Gruelle and Walters. Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the Human Rights Watch's women’s rights division, will moderate the discussion. [Private Violence is an HBO Documentary Films release.]

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series on June 13.

Private Violence

Cynthia Hill, USA, 2013, 81m

Responses by Hill:

On asking the right questions about the issue:

This story was deeply personal to me, but that is not what initially drew me to the story. The story found me in the sense that Kit Gruelle, a DV victim's advocate and one of the main subjects of Private Violence approached me first about working on a project that documented the history of the battered women's movement. But the more time I spent with Kit, the more I realized that she was the beating heart of the story. It really took my breath away to see the unconditional love and support advocates gave to the women they worked with. I'd never seen that kind of unconditional love and support before. It was something special to witness and behold, and that is what I sought out to document. The central question I wanted to answer was “why doesn't she just leave?” It is the question that all battered women face, everywhere she turns. She hears it over and over again, from her family, from judges and lawyers, from police and friends, from our most important and influential institutions. Exploring this issue from deep within the trenches, from deep within the lives of Kit and Deanna, I realized how wrong our society gets this issue. That question—”Why doesn't she just leave?”—is the wrong question to ask. We need to start asking better, more transformative questions.

On storytelling through film:

I don't set out to make social issue documentaries, but when I search for stories, I am drawn to those of the marginalized, whether it’s those of migrant workers or women in domestic violence situations. And they all take place in my backyard, in North Carolina. I think there is real strength and truth in storytelling. It's so central to our human experience to want to tell our stories, and in a time when our culture is so visual, filmmaking is a perfect medium for telling our most important narratives, the ones that should outrage us, move us to think differently, and, ultimately, to act differently.

On approaching the production of the film:

I never know how to answer this question. Mostly because the whole act of filmmaking is one enormous challenge. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, work, heart, passion, and money to make a film, even a low-budget documentary. Funding is certainly always a hurdle. Ultimately, one of my biggest challenges also ended up being the path of least resistance: to have the strength and the courage to listen to my own intuition. I tried for a very long time to make a historical documentary with all of the requisite “expert” talking heads. I got a lot of resistance for wanting to tell the story that spoke to me the most, the story that I ultimately ended up telling. I love that Kit and Deanna had the strength to share their truths with us. It was important for me to tell this story in a way where the women don't disappear, where the statistics don't speak for them, but instead the women speak for themselves.

On changing the perspective of an audience:

I've always said that if the audience walks away not being able to ask “why doesn't she leave” anymore, then I will feel like we've done our job, but I've been thinking anew about this in the wake of the recent tragedy in California. It's been amazing to see the social media response to this incident. While much of mainstream media wants to paint this and other cases like this as an isolated incident, the #YesAllWomen hashtag has really brought home the message that this is a deep part of our culture of violence against women. Fear of assault and violence at the hands of a man is something that all women fear. Domestic violence is something that all women face, regardless of race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, educational experience, all over the world. I hope folks leave with a broader sense of this issue and recognize that we all have a role to play, and a responsibility to make this world a safer place for women and children.