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Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman) 2002 

I should probably preface my review of Frederick Wiseman’s impressive documentary Domestic Violence with full disclosure of my attitudes toward the format. Most documentaries irk me because of what I deem “Smirking Maysles Syndrome”, which makes reference to the final moments in Gimme Shelter where the camera falls on one of the filmmakers who is coyly grinning with delight since he has captured a stabbing onscreen. Seeing that bit of the film crystallized a lot of the suspicions that I had about the documentarian. They spend much effort concealing the fact that their boom mikes are looming over the head of their subjects and excise any trace of footage that suggests the subjects are aware they’re being filmed. The intent here is to make us believe that we are witnessing things as they happen, uninterrupted by the presence of the camera-toting eyewitness. Nearly every nonfiction film is guilty of this to an extent, so I usually find every documentary that I see problematic on some levels, except for those that are comprised of footage assembled by someone other than the person that shot it. I know about my prejudices going into Wiseman’s three and a half hour Domestic Violence, so I tried to repress them as much as I could. 

Wiseman’s M.O. is a little bit irksome because it uses no subtitles, narration, or frilly artfulness to acknowledge that it is the product of an editorial process. There are only a few establishing shots in our tour of this Tampa, Florida area battered women’s shelter to remind us that the film is something other than actuality. I suppose many will appreciate this film’s candor and lack of ego, but I fear that just as many will confuse its plainness and noble aspirations for unfiltered reality. Few moments in the film seem expressly calculated to manipulate our perceptions of the subjects into something other than they might be, but some bits crop up, such as when the exclusion of the point of view of Children’s Services makes us root against them. Still, complaining about the gallant work of a filmmaker like Wiseman seems really awful, when you realize the good that a movie like this could do if the right people saw it (that most of the “right” people probably won’t is besides the point, I suppose). The work being done by the staff at such facilities is indeed noble, and any attention diverted toward it is admirable. 

What Wiseman does show is usually not so much eye opening as it is a confirmation of our fears about the abused. There’s admittedly something inherently transfixing about hearing the first hand account of the abuse cycle, so some power manages to build whenever we simply sit and listen to one of the victims. I think that the movie worked for me not because I was shown any hidden truths, but because I was able to examine the commonalities between the cases presented and note the uniqueness in each instance. I doubt I’ll ever really be able to shake the memory of the admirable determination that I saw of some of the film’s women. The setbacks and small triumphs that we see here count a lot, and pack a considerable punch. The most harrowing bit, for me, occurred as a woman described her terror as being thrown against a wall awakened her. Her initial dazed reaction was to call for help from her husband, and she chillingly recounts the dawning realization that he was the assailant. It’s bone chilling stuff, to be sure, but I wish I would be able to experience this and so many of the other sad slices of life that the film offers up, without imagining Wiseman smirking behind the camera, giddy with the cinematic gold he had just struck. 



Jeremy Heilman