Movie News & Reviews

Durham filmmaker premieres documentary about battered women

Sitting in front of a decaf coffee at Parker & Otis restaurant in Durham, filmmaker Cynthia Hill is trying to catch her breath.

It’s been a hectic few weeks, but that’s what happens when your documentary is selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, one of the nation’s most prestigious film showcases. And when HBO comes calling soon after, also wanting to pick up the movie – yes, things can get hectic.

Glancing at her buzzing cell phone, Hill takes a deep breath.

“When I check my email, I’ll probably have 20 emails from sales agents, Sundance people, party-throwers,” she says. “It’s a little overwhelming, but I’m not complaining.”

Hill’s feature-length documentary, “Private Violence,” had its world premiere Jan. 19 at Sundance, one of 16 films selected for the U.S. documentary competition. The film is making waves all over, and rightly so – it’s a tough, compelling and important documentary about the knotty and tragic issue of domestic violence.

It’s a daunting topic, and the statistics are stunning: More than a third of all female murder victims in the U.S. are killed by a domestic partner, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Thirty-five percent of all emergency room calls are attributed to domestic violence. On average, three women are murdered by their partner each day in the U.S.

But there are no statistical graphs or talking head interviews with experts – standard fare in an issue-oriented documentary – in “Private Violence.” Instead, Hill focuses on a handful of North Carolina women – victims, survivors and case workers – and tells their stories in detail.

Specifically, “Private Violence” focuses on the harrowing story of one North Carolina woman, Deanna Walters, whose then-husband reacted violently when she fled his abuse with her young daughter. He abducted the two and drove them cross-country in a tractor-trailer rig, where Walters was tortured in front of her child in November 2008.

We’re also introduced to Kit Gruelle, a victim’s advocate who is also a survivor of domestic violence. Since the mid-1980s, Gruelle has worked for public and private agencies, helping abuse survivors and agitating for legislative action.

We meet other victims and case workers, and in several key moments the film plays like a tense thriller or courtroom drama. It tracks Walters’ case through law enforcement and state and federal courts, and reveals the tangle of complex issues that victims must navigate even after the abusive relationship has ended.

In one of the film’s most infuriating sequences, we see medical photos of Walters’ grotesquely bruised face, taken from hospital admittance files at the time of her abduction. Then we hear from attorneys who reluctantly concede that, under North Carolina law, the most likely charge would be misdemeanor assault.

Hill’s movie touches on the intriguing flip side of the “cycle of violence” among domestic abuse victims: That when survivors work together, there can be a cycle of recovery and healing as well. Walters is studying to work as a victims’ advocate herself.

“It was very important to tell these two stories in parallel fashion, so that you can see what can happen,” Hill said. “That Deanna can come back and help others, as Kit has done. You get to see her transformation. It’s so beautiful to see this person who is beaten down – literally beaten down – and feeling as though she has no hope for justice and is fearful for her life. And to go to someone who has taken control and feels as though she has a future. It’s amazing watching that on screen.”

A North Carolina native, Hill has been working on documentaries in the Triangle for more than a decade.

She co-founded the Durham-based Southern Documentary Fund, which helps underwrite local films, and is director and producer of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” a cooking series set in eastern North Carolina. Her previous feature-length documentaries include films on the tobacco industry and immigrant farm laborers.

The Sundance festival, a famous launching pad for directors, is likely to raise her profile as a filmmaker considerably. But Hill said she’s happy to be making movies here at home.

“I’m proud to be doing it in North Carolina, to be able to stay here and make films that are interesting and important to me, and that are important locally,” she said. “I didn’t do this on my own. I had very talented, dedicated people all along the way. And I just want to be able to continue.”