Domestic Violence in the Global Village
Dan Friedman

And now, from the state that brought you electoral fraud, terrorist training, a decade of starvation in Cuba, and the decimation of the Everglades, please welcome domestic violence. In his latest film, Domestic Violence, Frederick Wiseman brings us to a battered women's shelter in Tampa and provides us with 196 minutes of frightening footage of what people (mainly men) will do to abuse their intimate companions (mainly women). The film is by turns horrifying, fascinating, voyeuristic, banal, shockingly funny, and full of pathos.

Wiseman is one of the few directors who challenges David Lynch for the title of America's finest living filmmaker. Where Lynch takes on narrative Hollywood and outnoirs it, outglams it, outsurreals it, Wiseman ignores the dictates of cineplex attention-spans, the petty resolutions of conventional cinema, and even the documentarian's tendency to meddle as evinced by Errol Morris, Claude Lanzmann, and Nick Broomfield. Throughout his career Wiseman has provided fascinating, occasionally beautiful, and always worrying glimpses of what life is like for your next-door neighbour. He installs himself in a location-a high school, a mental health facility, a department store, a juvenile court-and opens the melodrama, conventions, and banality of that world to a wider audience.

Wiseman names his films after the institutions he is filming -- "High School," "Hospital," "Basic Training" -- and this film is no exception. Although the film leans heavily on footage shot at "The Spring" -- a shelter for battered women and children-it is not about the shelter but about the institution it opposes: the institution of domestic violence. Although the West sees this problem in 'developing' countries, for the rest of the world domestic violence is one of the unacknowledged institutions of Western Civilization - of course, blaming it on Florida is as unfair as blaming the World Trade Center attacks on the peninsular state. One of the many points that the film allows to be made is that domestic violence can happen anywhere, to anyone, anytime.

When someone feels threatened, frustrated or disempowered and needs to feel big again, they look for familiar and easy paths. For most of us, our examples come from childhood and, in the case of domestic abusers, this often means from the abusive actions of their father. As with the children we see in the shelter who follow the examples that they see around them, we learn from experience. It is almost a commonplace for us by the time we hear someone in the film make it explicit that the incidence of domestic violence is much higher among people who grew up in households where they or a parent were abused.

The institution of domestic violence, then, is much more than a series of acts of physical violence. Domestic abuse is a complex system of control exercised by the powerful, themselves feeling disempowered, over the vulnerable, whose vulnerability grants power to the abuser. At various stages in the film we see women looking at a chart called "the wheel of power and control." The wheel explains the different ways in which the abuser isolates and belittles the abused so that they feel neither able nor entitled to stand up to their abuse. The different spokes of the wheel explain the different types of social, educational, financial, and emotional control that the abuser can exert. One of the most important aspects of the institution of domestic violence is the isolation this "wheel" engenders. Neither the victims nor their peers want to believe that there is anything wrong. Time after time, women in the film relate instances of emotionally fraught accusations and confessions being met with blatant disbelief or denial. Friends refused friends shelter, mothers turned away from daughters, sons sent their mothers back to abusive fathers. As always, the easiest response is denial.

As they stay longer in the shelter, the women in the film become increasingly articulate and able to express their previous situations. They agreed that they had been anxious to find love, and that the men in their lives had been ready to profess love for them early on in a relationship. Once hooked on this supposed love, the women were forced into a series of small choices, the cumulative effect of which was to make them entirely dependent upon their men. One woman recounted how she would occasionally be woken up by her head slamming against a wall. She would yell for her husband, screaming for help, thinking that they were being robbed, before realizing that her husband was doing the slamming. That same husband wouldn't leave her with any money or I.D. in the house because they lived in a "dangerous world" and while he was prepared to protect their valuables with guns, she was scared of them. The women's stories become new cries for love, this time from "The Spring" which is happy to give them shelter and validation as independent individuals.

Jean Amery points out that torture is a violation not necessarily because it is painful but because it is a violation of the integrity of the body, like a rape. Domestic violence is, despite the awful physical injuries it causes, essentially a betrayal of intimacy and a violation of the integrity of the home-the domus. While Wiseman may not interfere overly much in his material he does make editorial and directorial decisions. In this film two questions stand out: what constitutes violence? And, how far can we or should we stretch the concept of the home? Neither of these questions is as simple as it looks and, in the rest of the article, I will try to explain how the film complicates them.

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March 2002

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