The other night I saw a screening of a documentary called Domestic Violence at MoMA. The director is a man named Frederick Wiseman, who is sort of a documentarian’s documentarian – outside of fans of these sorts of things I haven’t met many people who have heard of him. It doesn’t help that Netflix doesn’t even carry DVDs of his movies. And so what I am about to do is tell you about a movie you likely cannot watch, unless someone near you decides to do a retrospective or something. I apologize for that, because what I have to say is that the movie is quite good, if overlong at three hours and fifteen minutes. (The first thing I said upon exiting, to a friend: “My kingdom for an editor!”)
The documentary is a collection of vignettes from footage Wiseman took at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa known as The Spring (which still exists, as you can see at the link – the movie itself came out in 2002). He seems to have been granted more or less full access to the facility – no one has their face blurred out or otherwise obscured – and we as viewers are even invited to sit in on internal staff meetings where some pretty gory personal details of one family – never seen onscreen – are discussed. This is one of those documentaries where life is observed as if no camera was in the room, and other than the occasional glimpse of a boom mike, or a child staring directly at the lens, there is little sense that the participants are affected by being watched, though they must have been.
Nonetheless, the women featured – there are men at the shelter but they were not shown onscreen – often managed to come out of themselves. “This isn’t fair,” sobbed one who was being stalked by the partner she’d left two years earlier, and who was told by the shelter’s (kind of jerk-ish) lawyer that her best option was to simply “disappear.” “Why do I have to change my life?” Another woman has been with her abusive husband for almost fifty years, and is clearly happy as a clam to be at the shelter rather than at home, but she too breaks down when asked to actually describe the abuse. And while these images are affecting and revealing, they did not really tell me anything I didn’t know.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite. In my professional life I’ve sat in more than a few rooms like those ones, where I have to go through the grim laundry list – “And did he kick you? And how many times did he kick you, often? And whereabouts did he – oh, I know this is upsetting, I‘m very sorry, I just need the information.” And every single time, I’ve felt like an asshole, needing the gory details so that someone will be convinced that this meets the requisite level of seriousness, so that someone will do something for this person. When I was in school we used to have arguments about boxes, and how it seemed that the whole of the law was devoted to shoehorning people’s experiences into categories that didn’t quite fit, which leads to awkward questions and conversations when the law runs into actual human beings.
Nonetheless, when I am engaged in that work, I’m not offering these women’s painful personal histories up for public consumption to an audience snacking on popcorn and Junior Mints. I often tread this strange line of keeping things private while trying not to make the people I am speaking to feel shamed about their experiences. In an ideal world no one would be ashamed of these things, but this is not an ideal world – it’s this one, and in this one the frequently frail psychological state of the victim seems to me it ought to be paramount.
See, around the time that Wiseman allows his cameras to listen in on details about one family’s experience of sibling-on-sibling rape, I started to worry about shock value and about those children one day seeing this documentary and hearing what’s going on. For the audience, perhaps it’s instructional, perhaps motivational; for the children it’s their lived experience. When the documentary came out, I can see from the reviews, Wiseman was praised in all quarters for offering such a stark view of the reality of these women’s lives. I guess he did that, but what I don’t see – and this is something I’ve been wondering a lot about lately – is any greater awareness cultivated by this particular document. It’s preaching to the converted – at such a long length Wiseman knew perfectly well that no one would ever sit through it, and the fact is, for that purpose, I am not sure I understand the ethical choice made here. Documentaries are always tricky that way – you’re making a spectacle of a person, and that’s always a dicey thing to do. And though there isn’t a hint of judgment anywhere in Domestic Violence, it might just show that even the statement of committing someone’s life to film is, no matter how neutral, potentially stepping over the line.