True/False 2014: Private Violence

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Domestic violence against women is something we see in the news unfortunately often — women killed by their husbands, beaten by their boyfriends, attacked by their exes. But for all the headlines, how much do we actually talk about it? How many people hear about a “domestic disturbance” and dismiss it, thinking, “Oh, that’s between them, it’s not anyone else’s business”? How many ask the wrong questions — “What did she to do make him so mad?” or “Why didn’t she just leave?” — instead of asking, “Why does this terrible abuse continue to happen?”

Private Violence, directed by Cynthia Hill, brings domestic violence out of other people’s houses and right onto your screen, where you have to face it. And it’s powerful. It’s so powerful.

Hill focuses primarily on two women: Kit Gruelle, a survivor of domestic violence who now works as a victim advocate, and Deanna Walters, who is fighting for justice after being kidnapped and terribly beaten by her former husband.

Those are the short descriptions of the two women. What Hill does in the film, though, is to go beyond the short descriptors of their stories — beyond the information you would get in a standard news report.

A theme throughout the film is addressing the question, “Why didn’t she just leave?” That’s an easy question to ask when all you know about is the abuse. But Hill gives more of the full picture, which makes you see that it’s not that simple.

Gruelle recounts some of the abuses she faced at the hands of her late husband, but she also talks about his difficult childhood and some of the reasons she loved him. Walters talks about her abusive husband, but she also talks constantly about her young daughter, and it becomes clear that she cares more about her daughter’s safety than her than her own, even if that means putting up with more and more abuse.

It’s never as easy as “just leaving.” And even those who “just leave” aren’t safe — as you learn in the film, some women move away or get restraining orders and still get murdered.

I came out of Private Violence so stunned that all I could say right after it was, “It was very powerful, and I’ll probably go home and cry about it later.”

There are so many things in it that should make any viewer angry. The many photos of Deanna, post-beating, looking bruised like no person should ever look. The doctor who says he has seen car crash victims who didn’t look as bad as she did. The lawyer who said they would need to prove in court that Deanna’s injuries were “serious” — a question that drew audible disbelief from the crowd at my screening.

We work so hard to try to make the world safe for people. We put lights on dark streets and blue-light emergency-call poles across college campuses. We train and arm police officers and soldiers and put them places where we need them.

What we don’t prepare for is the fact that for some women, the most unsafe place to be is right in their own home. That’s just not right.

We need to change things to make domestic violence stop — to change laws so abusers have to face consequences, to change attitudes so people stop asking what the victims “did wrong” and start asking what they can do to make sure there are no more victims.

I hope that with the help of people like Kit Gruelle and films like Private Violence, that kind of change can start happening.


To learn more about Private Violence and the efforts of people working to end domestic violence, visit the Private Violence website.

If you or someone you know is in danger, the Private Violence Project recommends calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or visiting thehotline.org/help.


Private Violence was this year’s True Life Fund recipient. Every year, the organizers of the True/False Film Fest choose one film to receive money from the True Life Fund, which “demonstrates that documentaries can create change by offering tangible assistance to the real-life subjects of a new nonfiction film,” according to the 2014 fest’s program. Donations are collected from the audience at screenings of the chosen film, as well as online. For more information and to donate money to benefit Deanna Walters and Kit Gruelle, go to truefalse.org/program/true-life-fund.


Note: This review is part of a series of reviews of movies I saw during the 2014 True/False Film Fest, an annual four-day film festival in Columbia, Mo. More reviews coming soon!

Jodorowsky’s Dune — Happy Valley — Private ViolenceDemonstration — Stop-Over (L’Escale) — Miraculous Tales — Rich Hill

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